As the 2017-18 season draws to a close for the Montreal Canadiens, fans are left frustrated that there will be no playoff hockey for the Habs this year. If you live in Montreal, you know that there is an energy and vibe in the air when the Canadiens are heading to playoffs that cannot be described. It’s something you feel in your bones. It’s a mixture of hope, anticipation, and excitement that only the playoffs can bring coupled with the warm spring sun that puts winter is in the rearview mirror, if only for a few months. While the playoffs bring this hope and excitement, sometimes they can bring more misery than joy. These are the Montreal Canadiens most disappointing playoff performances (since 1993).
Montreal Canadiens Most Disappointing Playoff Performances (Since 1993)
In a season like this, the fact that the Habs would not make the playoffs was obvious since January. So, the stages of grief have long since been completed and the realization that there would be no playoffs was accepted for most by February. So while excitement and enjoyment have been replaced with frustration and apathy, the season ending is viewed as a mercy, not a punishment. Still, missing the playoffs definitely stings to some extent. In Montreal, there is always this belief that anything can happen in the playoffs. They have seen it a few times before. Patrick Roy twice led the Habs to improbable Cup wins in 1986 and 1993 as did Ken Dryden in 1971. Still, most of the time, a team’s season will end with a loss.
A bitter defeat gives fans and media the whole summer to dissect what went wrong and who to blame. The team is left to wonder how things went so south and how to fix them. While every playoff loss is disappointing, some are much more difficult than others.
Walk Down Memory Lane
So with that being said, here are, in no order, the most disappointing playoff performances by the Habs. Be warned, frustration to follow!
2002 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Carolina Hurricanes (3) def. Montreal Canadiens (8) 4-2
The Canadiens qualified for the playoffs as the eight seed with 87 points. The Canadiens were on a high entering this series against the Hurricanes. They just dispatched archrival and number one seed Boston Bruins in six games. Jose Theodore was at the peak of his powers (about to win the Vezina and Hart Trophies). They also had the feel-good story of the NHL with captain Saku Koivu returning from cancer just prior to the playoffs.
The Hurricanes entered the playoffs as the third seed by virtue of winning the Southeast division with 91 points. In an upset, Carolina dispatched the six seeded and 2001 Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey Devils (96 points) in six games.
The Hurricanes took game one 2-0 in Raleigh, with two third period goals by Ron Francis and (the soon to be hated) Erik Cole. In game two, the Habs came to life and won 4-1 sending the series to Montreal tied at one.
In what felt like a turning point at the time, Donald Audette scored the overtime winner in game three to give the Habs the win and lead in the series 2-1. The real turning point of the series, however, was game four.
All the momentum seemed to be with the Canadiens. They jumped out to a 3-0 lead and held it into the third period. Then, the wheels fell off for the Canadiens. Then Habs head coach, Michel Therrien, gave the Hurricanes some life. Arguing a cross-checking call, Therrien took an abuse of official penalty at 2:40 of the third period, to give the Hurricanes a full two-man advantage power play. Sean Hill would score to give the Hurricanes hope. Then Bates Battaglia would get the Hurricanes within one. Then the aforementioned Cole would tie the game with 46 seconds left to send the game into overtime. With the ice tilted in the Hurricanes favour, they inevitably won the game early in overtime.
The Canadiens would never recover and dropped the next two games 5-1 and 8-2 to lose the series 4-2.
The Hurricanes would ride the momentum into the Stanley Cup finals, where they would be defeated 4-1 by the Detroit Red Wings. This also marks another missed Habs-Leafs playoff series, the other being the 1993 Stanly Cup Finals. Had the Canadiens held on in game four and took a 3-1 lead in the series, chances are they would have moved on to the Eastern Conference finals to meet the Leafs. Unfortunately, it was not to be and the Hurricanes met the Leafs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Fans of the rivalry are still waiting on a Habs-Leafs playoff series.
The Canadiens failed to make the playoffs in the 2002-03 season and head coach Michel Therrien was fired in January 2003, replaced by Claude Julien.
1998 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Buffalo Sabres (6) def. Montreal Canadiens (7) 4-0
The Canadiens qualified for the playoffs as the seven seed with 87 points and then defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 in the first round. The Sabres qualified for the playoffs as the six seed with 89 points and dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1. The Big story of the series was how the Habs could beat the Sabres all-world goalie Dominik Hasek. Just before the series began, Canadiens winger, Martin Rucinsky, may have provided the Sabres with some bulletin board material. He said the Sabres owed their success to one player, Hasek.
Unfortunately for Habs fans, this series plaid out exactly as expected. There was no devastating turning point in this series, just a crushing sense of inevitability. The Habs threw everything they could at Hasek, outshooting the Sabres in the series 159 to 98. While Hasek stood tall for the Sabres, the Habs goaltending was equally as bad. The combination of Andy Moog, Jocelyn Thibault and Jose Theodore allowed 17 goals in the four games. The Habs did get to Hasek in a couple of games, but the Habs netminders let the team down.
The frustrating part of the series was the fact that the Habs played so well, but could not beat Hasek. Who knows how this series might have played out had the Habs had decent goaltending. Andy Moog was dealing with an injury for most of the series, which meant Thibault saw more time in net than the Habs wanted. Any time the Habs got a foothold in a game, the Sabres seemed to strike right back. While it seemed the Habs had to work incredibly hard for any breakthrough, the Sabres exploited the Habs inferior goaltending at every turn.
The Habs would go on to miss the playoffs for the next three seasons. This would be one of the darkest times for the proud franchise. When the dust cleared, both head coach Alain Vigneault and general manager Rejean Houle had been fired.
The Sabres would lose to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference finals after sweeping the Habs. They would make it all the way to the finals the following year, only to lose the series on a controversial game six overtime goal.
2009 Eastern Conference Quarter Finals
Boston Bruins (1) def. Montreal Canadiens (8) 4-0
The Montreal Canadiens were celebrating the teams 100-year anniversary. The entire 2009 year was marked with celebrations and ceremonies in honour of the teams long and rich history. The NHL draft was held in Montreal, as was the All-Star game. All the ingredients were there for a memorable season.
The team was riding high as well. Through December, the Habs sported a 21-9-6 record and were sitting comfortably. For some reason, however, the Habs play completely dropped off in the second half of the season. Looking to shake things up, Habs general manager Bob Gainey replaced head coach Guy Carbonneau in March. Unfortunately, it didn’t have much of an effect. From January to April, the Habs went 20-21-5 and limped into the playoffs, qualifying eighth.
The series against the Bruins was as disappointing as it gets for Habs fans. They were swept in unceremonious fashion. Unlike the Sabres series, this series the Habs seemed disinterested and distracted. It was an uneventful series that turned ugly as the fans directed their ire at Carey Price during game four, which led to a familiar response.
The disappointing part about this series was how listless and poor the team played. It amplified all the rumours about it being a dysfunctional dressing room that didn’t get along. The on-ice product seems to mirror this as well.
It’s never fun to lose in the playoffs, let alone to a rival, but to get swept with relative ease is embarrassing. To add salt to the wounds, former Hab Michael Ryder had a great series for the Bruins, scoring four goals – more than his entire playoff career (to that point) with the Canadiens. It was the cherry on top of the awful sundae that became the latter half of the 2008-09 season.
The fallout was pretty big. General manager Bob Gainey decided to completely overhaul the core of his team. The Habs had several veteran free agents that were not re-signed. Gone was captain Saku Koivu, along with fan favourites, Alex Kovalev and Mike Komisarek. To really shake things up, Gainey made the now infamous trade for Scott Gomez. The Canadiens signed several free-agents including Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Hal Gill and Travis Moen. Jacques Martin was hired as the new head coach.
2010 Eastern Conference Finals
Philadelphia Flyers (7) def. Montreal Canadiens (8) 4-1
The Habs were on a magical run in the 2010 playoffs. They dispatched the Presidents Trophy winners (Washington Capitals) and defending Stanley Cup champions (Pittsburgh Penguins) on their way to the Eastern Conference finals. The team was riding on the play of backup goalie Jaroslav Halak and clutch Mike Cammalleri goal scoring.
Not to be overshadowed, the Flyers were riding their own high. They erased a three games to zero deficit to the Boston Bruins. In a fun bit of symmetry, the Flyers won game seven 4-3 after trailing 3-0 in the game. The Habs were looking for a measure of revenge as the Flyers eliminated the Canadiens in the 2008 playoffs.
After dealing with the Capitals and Penguins, many thought the Flyers were an easier opponent. Perhaps the players bought into that because all the magic was gone from the Habs end. There were no key goals coming from Cammalleri, or any Habs for that matter. In fact, the Habs were shut out in three of the five games. Halak proved to be more Steve Penney than Ken Dryden. Halak, who must have looked like a wall to the Capitals and Penguins was outplayed by career AHL goalie Michael Leighton. The Canadiens could only muster seven goals in the entire series, five of which came in game three. It was a disappointing way to end such a magical run for the Habs. Montreal went out with a whimper after the fight they put up in the first two series.
There was no severe fallout from the loss. As the Habs went on a run, it was seen as a building block rather than an aberration. Still, Halak was traded as the team firmly (and rightly) believed that Carey Price was the future for the team. The Canadiens qualified for the playoff the following season. Unfortunately, the Canadiens would lose in the first round to the Boston Bruins, the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
The major change was that general manager Bob Gainey stepped down during the season and was replaced with Pierre Gauthier. Gauthier had an interesting way of conducting business. Some of his notable moves included firing an assistant coach an hour before a game and trading a player during a game.
Still, within two years, both Jacques Martin and general manager Pierre Gauthier would be fired and the Habs would be reimagined, yet again.
2017 Eastern Conference First Round
New York Rangers (WC1) def. Montreal Canadiens (A1)
The Canadiens rebounded after a disastrous 2016 season. Carey Price returned to form after missing most of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury. The team finished first in the Atlantic division with 103 points. Looking to avoid a second-half slump, head coach Michel Therrien was replaced by Claude Julien (again) in February.
The Rangers, while a Wild Card team, finished with 102 points. Unfortunately for them, in the stacked Metropolitan division, it was only good for fourth place. The Canadiens were looking for a bit of revenge. The Rangers defeated the Canadiens in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals after Carey Price was injured in a collision with Chris Kreider.
A big concern for Habs fans heading into the playoffs was the lack of scoring. Unfortunately for Habs fans, their fears were realized. The Canadiens would only be able to score 11 goals in the six-game series. The Habs would score seven of those goals in their two wins. A lot of frustration for the Habs inability to score was focused on captain Max Pacioretty, who went goalless in the series.
Again, this series disappoints because the Habs issues were obvious heading into the playoffs. While the team needed goals, general manager Marc Bergevin added grit and size. It was a waste of a great season and was a precursor of things to come.
Not much fallout to discuss here as it is still fresh. The only fallout is that the Habs play from the playoffs seemed to carry over into the season. The Habs are having one of their worst seasons in franchise history and the roots of this season can be found in this playoff loss to the Rangers.
2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Ottawa Senators (7) def. Montreal Canadiens (2) 4-1
The NHL was coming back after a lockout resulted in a short 48 game regular season. The Canadiens entered the season fresh off of hiring a new general manager and head coach. The Canadiens bottomed out in 2011-12, finishing last in the Eastern Conference. The Habs took advantage of the shortened season and sprinted to an Atlantic Division title. The Habs played an up-tempo, skilled game that fans had been aching for. There was a reason for excitement.
The strong season had Habs fans excited. It was also the first playoff meeting between Ottawa and Montreal. The excitement and anticipation were quickly replaced with dread and fear. Midway through the second period of game one, Senators defenceman, Eric Gryba laid a controversial hit on Canadiens centre Lars Eller. The hit set the tone for the series as the Senators used their size to push around the smaller Canadiens. The Gryba hit and post-game comments from then Senators coach Paul MacLean seemed to throw the Habs completely off their game.
Not to be forgotten is the stellar goaltending from Craig Anderson. The Habs had opportunities but couldn’t find a way to beat Anderson. He left the Habs looking for answers in most games.
The final nail in the Habs coffin was at the end of game four. The Habs blew a two-goal lead in the third period. On the tying goal, with under a minute remaining, goalie Carey Price injured his knee and was done for the series. He was replaced by back up Peter Budaj. The Senators eventually won the game in overtime. In game five at the Bell Centre, the Senators blew out the Habs 6-1 to close out the series. The Senators would outscore the Habs 20-9 in the series.
At the time, it seemed the Habs were bested by a more experienced team. The silver lining was it looked like the team was building towards something special. However, with hindsight, it was simply an aberration. Canadiens head coach, Michel Therrien reverted back to a more defensive style of play. Habs general manager Marc Bergevin became obsessed with adding more grit, size and character to the roster. Unfortunately, it has come at the expense of quicker and skilled players.
This also was the beginning of Carey Price’s (somewhat) chronic knee injury. The knee would cause Price to miss the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals and most of the 2015-16 season.
Is It Better To Have Never Loved At All?
So, there you have it. Bitter playoff losses that, if you remember them, bring back some painful memories for sure. Some of them were a missed opportunity, others were a sign of things to come. So it can be a blessing in disguise that the Habs were out of playoff contention so early in the season, rather than having them make a push and come up short. It lets fans come to grips with the reality of the situation. While a stunning playoff loss can lead some to wonder if it would have been better to not get there at all. It’s the old “is it better to have loved and lost or not to have loved at all” situation. Having hope, only to have it dashed in unceremonious fashion can make even the most hardened fan want to pull their hair out.
Better To Have Loved
Again, while every playoff loss is hard to take, sometimes they can be downright demoralizing. Still, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would rather miss out than take part in the playoffs. So, while playoff losses can be frustrating, they still represent an opportunity. The only chance a team has at winning the Stanley Cup is by qualifying for the playoffs.
So with the snow melting and the temperatures rising, there is a slight bounce in people’s steps. It means winter coats and tuques are put away in favour of t-shirts and flip flops (well, not quite yet). Soon Montrealers will be flocking to bars and terraces (patios for you English Canadians) to take full advantage of the warmer weather. It also usually means that unexplainable playoff atmosphere wrapping around the city like a warm blanket. This year, their won’t be that energy around the city. There won’t be any playoff overtime games to paralyze everyone. There is no playoff atmosphere this year. The playoff atmosphere is something every team and fan wants to be a part of. Even if it is brief and fleeting.
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