Tuesday April 21st, 2009

MONTREAL -- Like Sisyphus, the Montreal Canadiens face a mythic uphill climb in their first-round series against the splendid Boston Bruins, who won 4-2 on Monday (RECAP | BOX) to take a three games-to-nothing lead in a series between rivals almost as old as Athens and Sparta.

There is, of course, a statistical possibility the Canadiens can sweep the next four against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference.

There also is a statistical possibility that you will win the Powerball.

Tough odds, in either case.

So while genuflecting to the patron saints of no-hopers, the 1942 Maple Leafs and the 1975 Islanders, the two NHL playoff teams to ever come back from the abyss, let's fast-forward to the moment, whenever that might be, that Bruins and Canadiens players shake hands and Boston trudges forward into the second round and Montreal retreats to survey the wreckage of the 100th anniversary season.

The scene in Montreal will look an awful lot like the morning after a massive street party, littered with the detritus of a franchise that was pointing to these particular playoffs for five years. There will be broken dreams and bad hangovers, recriminations and reflection. The team that mirrors the mood of its city more than the Cowboys in Dallas and more than the Yankees in New York could be a smoldering shell whose playoff hopes are as dim as some of the penalties the Brothers Kostitsyn, Andrei and Sergei, have been taking against the disciplined Bruins.

Let's look at the major issues facing hockey's heritage franchise:

• Ownership. George Gillett, the heavily leveraged owner of the Canadiens, is looking to sell some or all of his 80.1 percent of the team. Oncle George, as he is known here in the French-speaking corner of North America, has been, on balance, a beneficent owner who stepped in when no one in Quebec or the rest of Canada wanted Molson's majority share of the team. True, Gillett was bargain hunting, acquiring the team and the arena for a song, but he also increased the value of the business to the point 10 groups reportedly are kicking tires. The Canadiens will never move -- the NHL would shutter its windows before that would happen -- but uncertainty at the top is always disquieting, especially for those below.

• Management. General manager Bob Gainey keeps his own counsel so anyone who professes to know what he will do after the season is either speculating or kidding himself. But a new owner could make that decision for him or Gainey could decide to walk, leaving someone else to pick up the shards of a five-year plan in which Montreal never made it to a conference final.

• Coach. Unless Gainey stays behind the bench -- really doubtful but, as mentioned, with Gainey the possibilities are endless -- Montreal will be in the market for a new coach. After Gainey fired coach Guy Carbonneau and took over, Canadiens president Pierre Boivin told a business group the Canadiens needed a bilingual coach, a sentiment that generally played well in Quebec but narrowed the pool from Olympic-sized to something you might put up in your backyard -- albeit with some Stanley Cup winners capable of doing the backstroke in it. With Jacques Martin apparently remaining as GM in Florida and Jacques Lemaire unlikely to return to a market that he fled, the short list probably will consist of Marc Crawford, who book-learned French when he started to coach the Quebec Nordiques in the 1990s and Bob Hartley, who, like Crawford, won a Cup in Colorado.

• Players. The Canadiens currently have 10 unrestricted free agents, including three biggies: captain Saku Koivu, right wing Alex Kovalev and defenseman Mike Komisarek. Of the troika, the guess is only Koivu returns. For the Canadiens' sake, it better be as the No. 2 center. With a different-looking team -- and enough cap room to take on the remaining 10 years of the 11-year, $85-million deal he signed last July -- the Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier, whose no-trade clause kicks in July 1, might be the ideal bauble to keep fans occupied while Gainey, or whoever, retools a franchise that has won 24 Cups but none since 1993. Boivin already has said the team needs a "francophone superstar." In Quebec, that ain't code for Simon Gagné. With Tampa Bay looking to unload that contract -- Steven Stamkos could be a building block for its revival -- Montreal certainly will be pitching for a native son despite his nagging injuries in recent years.

From the perspective of last call, 100th season party -- concerts, commemorative coins from the Canadian mints, statues, jersey retirements, you name it -- might have been a fool's errand from the beginning. The expectations were too high for the talent level, even when the Canadiens did have a full complement of players. And Montreal has been gutted recently by injuries to key players such as defensemen Andrei Markov, Mathieu Schneider and Francis Bouillon and forwards Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay. (Tanguay and Schneider were late Game 3 scratches with "upper body injuries.") Markov, injured last month in Toronto, is the fulcrum. Since the owner's lockout of 2004-05, Montreal is 6-18-2 in games he has missed.

The Canadiens started Monday with their best period in two months against a quality team, scoring the opening goal for the first time against Boston and recording a bone-rattling 21 hits. They also left the period tied, 1-1, because of a nifty Phil Kessel tip of a Dennis Wideman shot with 85 seconds remaining. Alas, a sense of urgency has only so many miles to the gallon. After unlamented former Montreal winger Michael Ryder scored a late second-period goal off a Carey Price rebound that was so fat it practically waddled from the goalie's right pad to his stick, the Canadiens were cooked. In the third period, the Bruins allowed only five shots. When it was over, only a handful of Montreal players skated to the crease to give Price some consoling taps. The rest headed straight to the dressing room, which is some telling body language worth quoting.

Last one out, please shut out the lights.

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