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- January hasn't been a kind month for Lars Eller. He has just 12 points in 44 games, his lowest PPG average of any month.
There is no questioning the passion that Montreal Canadiens' fans express for their hockey team. For many, it is almost a religion, with its devoted followers poring over every boxscore, every post-game comment, and any extra-curricular activity. This passion manifests itself in many ways, and can be best exemplified as the deafening roar of the Bell Centre; a united voice preying upon the errors and star players of the visiting team with derisive scorn.
But there is a downside to this passion. When the fans' desires aren't sated, their fervor turns dark and indiscriminate. Their enthusiasm seeks only a target for its release, and can eventually turn on their own team’s players. The 'Boo-Birds', as they have been called, emerge and voice their displeasure for any mistake, however insignificant it may be.
Their boos usually focus on one unfortunate player; Patrice Brisebois, Janne Niinimaa, Ryan O’Byrne, and Carey Price have all been victimized over the past few seasons. But with so many new players this year, the question arises: Who will be the next scapegoat to bear the brunt of the Boo-Birds' disdain this season?
Potential Scapegoat #1: Hal Gill
At 6’7”, 250 lbs, Gill is quite literally the biggest target. Unfortunately, Gill's big size is accompanied with slow acceleration, below-average speed and the increased possibility of being caught out of position. The Boo-Birds will likely overlook Gill's steady stay-at-home influence and solid penalty-killing once one of his deficits cost the Habs a goal or a game. As this is something Gill has dealt with in other hockey-mad markets, don't expect him to be too bothered by the fans' collective contempt.
Potential Scapegoat #2: Brian Gionta
Gionta was richly rewarded by Bob Gainey, despite coming off his lowest goal-scoring season since 2002-2003. The money he is earning is excessive for a typical 20-goal scorer and Gionta is four years removed from his 48-goal output. Even with his hard-working ethic and nose for the net, one can fully expect harsh criticisms for the pint-sized player if he doesn't instantly rekindle his chemistry with newcomer Scott Gomez. Furthermore, it was Gionta that "stole" the remaining cap space that was reportedly earmarked for a popular former Hab, Alexei Kovalev. Never mind that Gionta is practically guaranteed to be a more consistent and a better all-around player than Kovalev; fans likely won't be satisfied unless Gionta puts up at least 30 goals.
Potential Scapegoat #3: Georges Laraque
Laraque can definitely be included in the group of Canadiens that had a season to forget. In a year that was marred by injuries, Laraque's unwillingness to mug unwilling fight combatants drew the ire of many fans who had expected Big Georges to inject a form of invincibility into the team's psyche. With a cap hit of $1.5 million, Laraque is paid too much to be used as a slow 4th line player/healthy scratch. Don't expect fans to ever be completely satisfied unless Laraque is fighting, but a healthy Georges will go a long way to quelling the Boo-Birds.
Potential Scapegoat #4: Scott Gomez
Like most of the aforementioned players, Gomez carries with him quite a hefty price tag. But unlike the others, Gomez's contract is widely regarded as one of the worst in the NHL, and he is coming off his lowest point output since 2002-2003. Additionally, Gomez is no Vincent Lecavalier, who was long-rumoured to be donning the bleu, blanc et rouge before Gomez was acquired. The attainment of Gomez eliminated all likelihood of that happening, to the dismay of many Habs' fans. Factor in that Montreal surrendered two former 1st-round draft picks in the Gomez trade, and it is safe to assume that fans will have unrealistically high expectations of the playmaking centre. Look for the Boo-Birds to single out Gomez if he doesn’t produce right from the start; however, there is a good chance that this change of scenery is just what Gomez needed.
Potential Scapegoat #5: Carey Price
Price's on and off-ice struggles last year are well-documented and culminated with him being booed on home ice while gesturing to the Bell Centre crowd in frustration. The fans justified their resentment by placing the whole team's poor performance on Price, with most arguing that fellow netminder Jaroslav Halak should have been playing in his stead. Don't expect fans to change their minds if Price demonstrates the same weaknesses as last season, or if Halak outperforms Price. Fortunately for Price, this Jacques Martin-coached team will be better defensively and the Canadiens currently employ one of the better defensive corps in the Eastern Conference. Price should bounce back to his rookie-year form, but if he doesn't, he will learn that the Boo-Birds have long memories and little tolerance for anything less than perfect.
Ordinarily, five candidates for scapegoat should suffice for one team, but not in Montreal. Look for Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, Ryan O'Byrne and Tomas Plekanec to endure unfair criticisms if their play doesn't meet the standards of the passionate Montreal fans. One must hope that such inconveniences must be bearable for the chance to win the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens.