You could see it in his eyes on Saturday night. Skating out to an ovation unlike any other he’s experienced as a Habs, Chris Higgins was basking in the glory of the accomplishment of the year and anticipating what was yet to come. Named the games first star, his two goals had helped pace the Montreal Canadiens to a season ending victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Clapping his two gloved hands together you could sense that a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, a burden that he had been carrying for the last year.
The adoration and sense of accomplishment felt by Higgins on Saturday night stood in stark contrast to the scene a year earlier. Against these same Leafs, a desolate Higgins sat in the Canadiens locker room. There were no cheers that night, just tears from a player who had given his all. But on that night there would be no future possibilities, just a long summer to ponder a year that had gone bad. The Canadiens season had come to a premature end, one that saw Higgins play on despite a broken collarbone, score two goals and try everything to stem the tide of a season mysteriously gone wrong.
“A lot of guys were genuinely upset for a long time after the season about the way things ended up”, Higgins explained to the Montreal Gazette’s Dave Stubbs month’s later. Despite the passage of time the wound still seemed fresh to Higgins and was foremost in his mind as he spent the hot summer months pushing himself physically in a way few other players could match.
But if one is looking for one word to describe Chris Higgins it would be pride, a pride in his own play and that of his team.
“I think it’s just probably passion,” Higgins explained to the Gazette’s Kevin Mio last fall. “I love playing I love working on the game and becoming a better player and seeing myself be a better player.”
For Higgins however, the success of the team is paramount, and in his conversation last summer with Stubbs he stressed that, “we have a lot of things we want to show a lot of people this year.”
Needless to say that goal has been accomplished by this years Canadiens. Thinking back to last summer who would have possibly foreseen that the Habs would finish first in the Eastern Conference, with 104 points, their most since 1989, and be one of the favourites in the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
But for Higgins, a player who can be his worst critic, this season must have been bittersweet on a personal level.
Heading into this season Higgins seemed primed for a breakout. Possessing a rare blend of skill, speed, as well as an insatiable appetite in battling for the puck, it seemed inevitable that he would take that next step towards NHL superstardom.
Obviously, the Canadiens felt that Higgins was on the verge of taking that next step, both on and off the ice, when they bestowed him with the assistant captaincy. Heading into the season there was talk of Higgins striving to join the ranks of the 40 goal club.
For reasons still somewhat inexplicable it didn’t happen.
And while Higgins finished with 27 goals and 52 points there was a feeling that it could have been more. Finishing seventh amongst Habs scorers this year qualified as a mild disappointment, especially considering that he was able to stay healthy throughout the year and play in all 82 of the team’s games.
If one were looking for one word to sum up Chris Higgins this year it would undoubtedly be inconsistent. There were nights where he was clearly the best Hab on the ice but these games were punctuated by long stretches where he seemed unable or incapable of finding the back of the net.
Watching each game, one was struck by how snake bit Higgins appeared throughout the year. If the league kept statistics on hit goalposts, Higgins would have undoubtedly been amongst the leaders. Even in Saturday’s 2 goal game against the Leafs he managed to strike the metal twice.
Sometimes I wonder however if we expect too much from Higgins. Some have brought up that they feel that his talent ceiling isn’t as high as others have suggested. But for me I think we sometimes lose perspective on just how young this man is. After all, he just completed his third full season with the club. Three seasons coincidentally that have seen him hit the twenty goal mark, no mean feat for any player first entering the NHL.
Clearly, the problem doesn’t lie in his effort level, which is more often than not the team’s highest on a nightly basis. As a matter of fact there are those who feel that he sometimes is guilty of trying too hard. Count Canadiens head coach, Guy Carbonneau in this group. Late in the season, struggling through a nine game goalless drought, Carbonneau presented Higgins with a DVD of all his goals.
This had to have been a trying time for Higgins. Suddenly, his name started being whispered throughout Montreal as potential trade bait, undoubtedly a bitter pill to swallow for the ultimate team player. But at this moment, Carbonneau offered not only salvation, but a reminder and for Higgins, the message was clear, you do your best from close in and so driving to the net would surely seem to be the cure for all his scoring woes.
In the nine games since Carbonneau presented the DVD, Higgins has potted six goals and resumed his role as one of the team’s most important and valuable players, and not a moment too soon with the playoffs beginning on Thursday night.
“Everyone has a chance to win now,” exclaimed an excited Higgins to the Gazette last week. “We’ve claimed our berth and we have an opportunity to do something special.”
And while the playoffs represent the beginning of what could be a memorable spring for the Canadiens and their fans, it also represents a chance at redemption for Chris Higgins. He has been through the worst and perhaps hardest stretch of his career and has emerged intact, full of confidence and hope for what lies ahead and unlike last year he has a chance.
A chance to put the struggles of the season behind him, a chance to excel in the only season that really matters, a chance to elevate his play during the next two months, and most importantly, an opportunity to be forever known as a Stanley Cup champion.