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The Jekyll-and-Hyde Habs

If you are a Montreal Canadiens fan, you probably caught Saturday night's 6-0 whitewash of the New York Rangers. But, then, you probably also caught last Sunday's 6-2 loss to the same New York team, which arguably was the Habs's most embarrassing game of the year. So, to a team that for whatever reason has clear-cut identity issues, which is it???

I am a Habs fan. Have been all my life. I am a Montrealer, born and raised, so I've felt my share of disappointment over the years, the biggest of which was not being able to enjoy their last Stanley Cup victory, their National-Hockey-League-leading 24th, by the way, in 1993. No, I was seven, going on eight years of age.

What I do remember, though, is that my parents plopped me down in front of the television set to enjoy the countdown of the last few seconds before the Montreal Canadiens beat the Los Angeles Kings for the championship that year, as if I knew or understood what I would be watching… that right there constitutes the only injustice my parents have ever committed unto me: force-feeding their son, barely old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, the sweet taste of victory only to have the Habs themselves snatch it away year after year afterwards.

That addiction-forming moment nearly seventeen years ago has stayed with me after each heart-wrenching defeat from that point onward… and it's also why victories such as yesterday's are bittersweet, as they should be for any loyal fan, for there's no greater sin a professional sports team can commit than to instill in their disciples a sense of false hope. The reality is that the Habs just aren't good enough to win it all this year. Or are they? I'm really, really conflicted, because I just don't know what to make of this particular edition of the team.

If you look at the team's year up to this point, they opened the year with a modest two-game winning streak, and Montrealers started planning the Stanley Cup parade. Then they lost five straight, and Montrealers started planning general manager Bob Gainey's resignation party. And then they won four straight… maybe Bob's not such a bad guy after all, eh? But then they lost two straight to fall under .500 again… and Bob was not only a bad guy again, he was the Devil incarnate for purposely messing with out heads.

At this point, after there had been questions aplenty as to what to expect from this bunch following a complete overhaul in the off-season (only 13 of 23 players on the team right now were Habs at the end of last year), one can make the argument that the Habs do indeed have an identity: A dual one as the streakiest team in the league.

But the crisis doesn't end there, unfortunately. The team is undeniably well-balanced, starting in goal with the two-headed monster that is Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak, or, as I like to call it, Caroslav.

You see, Gainey has the unenviable task of trying to decide between the anointed one in Price, a blue-chip goalie if there ever was one, who just isn't producing consistent results in net, and Halak, a goalie who currently ranks fourth in the league in save percentage (.927). Both are young, with Price at 22 and Halak at 24, and both undeniably have futures in the league, it's just that ask any hockey analyst out there and they will say that Price's future is more bright than Halak's, and yet you have Halak continually outplaying Price to the point that if the team hopes to make the playoffs this year, most every one of those same analysts will say that they need to continue playing Halak, because Price simply isn't getting the job done. If you're confused, you'll fit right in with the rest of Habs fandom.

So, what does Gainey do? Trade Price and give up the future, or trade Halak and give up the present? Well, Bob, just know that we're behind you whatever you decide, unless whatever you decide turns out to be the wrong decision, and then we'll stab you in the back, and call for your dismissal.

Gainey really does have the hardest job in hockey. Brian Burke may be tasked with turning around a lacklustre Toronto Maple Leafs squad, but at least he has five years to do it. For Gainey, who was hired at the end of the 2002-2003 season, last year was the end of his five-year plan, and the Habs fell on their faces the length of the year, only to have the Boston Bruins put them out of their misery in the first round of the playoffs with a four-game sweep.

So, what does Bob do then? He gets off his derriere and proceeds to rebuild the team, as if there was some cloak-and-dagger meeting between the Habs brass that went something like this:

President Pierre Boivin: "So, Bob, that team of yours really didn't do well this year."
Gainey: "Nope."
Boivin: "What are you going to do about it?"
Gainey: "Don't know."
Boivin: "Hey, not counting the 2004-2005 lockout, wasn't this year your fifth season as GM?"
Gainey: "Really? Well, those five years sure went by fast, didn't they?"
Boivin: "Sure didn't feel like it."
Gainey: "You're telling me!"
Boivin: "Huh?"
Gainey: "Huh?"
Boivin: "Didn't you just say that they went by fast?"
Gainey: "I tell you what: You've got, what 9 unrestricted free agents to sign this off-season?"
Boivin: "10."
Gainey: "Wow. 10 unrestricted free agents. It's almost as if someone screwed the pooch, not planning that out all that well… how about I fix that up for you, tie up a few loose ends, trade for perennial disappointment Scott Gomez, sign Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, etc., etc., and we'll have this discussion some other time, when it isn't so hectic around the office? Good? Great. I'll see you next June."
Boivin: "What just happened?"

In all seriousness, I've always been a Gainey supporter, and, with notable exception to a few questionable moves over the past few years, he's done a great job, and last year's horrible result was not so much his fault as it was one of circumstance and untimely injuries. Still, you do have the trading of goalie Cristobal Huet for a second-round draft pick two years ago that prematurely thrusted Price into the spotlight, the relatively inexplicable firing of head coach Guy Carbonneau (who Gainey hired for the 2006-2007 season), and now the essentially firing of tough-guy Georges Laraque (who Gainey signed because the Habs were thought to be too soft), because it would seem the Habs all of a sudden are not too soft. Whichever way you look at it, critical mistakes have been made, and it's about time for some results.

Gainey should never be fired, because you don't fire a Hall-of-Famer, and you especially don't fire a Hall-of-Famer who captained your team to a Stanley Cup in 1985-1986. Still, there's little doubt in my mind that if the Habs don't become the Cinderella story of these upcoming playoffs and make it through at least two rounds, changes will need to be made and Gainey will end up resigning at the end of the year.

Like I said, I love Gainey for what he has done for this team, for his ability to unite the entire city two seasons ago, engineering a team that surpassed all expectations and won first place in the Eastern conference only to lose in the second round of that year's playoffs to the Philadelphia Flyers. That was year four of his time in the Habs's front office. You already know what happened in year five.

Now, it's year six, he has been given the chance to start the team all over from scratch, and halfway through the year we still don't know if the Habs are contenders or pretenders. Hopefully, they've got at least one more winning streak in them that will last until the start of June. If not for Gainey's sake, than for mine. I've been waiting on Stanley Cup number 25 for a while.