Instead, we’re looking back at a season in which a plucky No. 8 seed upset the Eastern Conference's top-seeded Bruins. If ever a season can end wonderfully and with a devastating playoff loss at the same time, 2001-02 afforded the Canadiens just that kind of conclusion. The team won seven of its last nine regular-season games (and lost only four of its final 16) to make the playoffs. Saku Koivu returned, even saw a couple of regular season games and picked up 10 points in the playoffs. Jose Theodore stood on his head, even won a playoff round and picked up the Hart and Vezina trophies.
With perhaps the best goaltending in the division, Montreal’s smallish (hint: be skeptical of the media guide) forwards won't be asked to put up monster numbers. But without a single 30-goal scorer, getting far ahead of .500 isn’t easy to do. If the Canadiens manage to get there, opponents should be worried.
Mariusz Czerkawski, RW -- If we can agree on the premise that this team goes almost nowhere without Theodore, we can move to one player that might take some heat if he falls further into his declining production. Back in 1999-2000, when some of us couldn’t get enough of the NHL 2001 P.A. announcer yelling his name after goal, Czerkawski scored 35 goals. The following season, on a horrible Islanders team, that number slipped to 30. Last season, it was 22.
Still, 85 goals over the past three seasons trumps anything the Canadiens could previously claim. In fact, their top three goals scorers in 2001-02 combined for only 73. Still, in that three-season span, Czerkawski, who may be slight of build but will initiate his share (certainly not Peter Forsberg’s share) of contact, is minus-49, and he might be playing with Smurfs on the top line.
Scoring -- Size matters, certainly, but Montreal was able to upset one much bigger opponent before losing to another, Carolina, in the second round. The Canadiens can make the playoffs with small forwards again, but they could make things a whole lot easier on themselves by scoring some goals. Perhaps the new we-really-really-mean-it-this-time crackdown on clutching and grabbing will open up the ice. The likes of Koivu, Oleg Petrov, Donald Audette, and even 6-footers such as Richard Zednik sure could use the extra room.
P.S. One weak link from last season has been shored up. In 2001-02, only eight Canadiens games were scheduled for broadcast on Hockey Night in Canada. This season, according to the Montreal Gazette, 17 night games will be televised.
While we would like to have asked if it were at all possible for Sergei Berezin to take more shots than he does, that is a question best posed in Chicago, and Habs fans should really concern themselves with Theodore’s status. He won’t be traded, but that $1.65 plus bonus salary he earned (and earned, and earned again) for 2001-02 is, as they say, histoire.
Reports out of Montreal have Theodore asking for something in the $6 million-per-year range while, according to the Gazette, the team has offered $4 million. Most likely, this gets solved. Theodore picked a fine time for an MVP season, but not a great time -- with a work stoppage looming in 2004, to sit without a paycheck. The question is to what extent this possible mess messes with the feel-good karma that made such an impression during the playoffs.
Patrice Brisebois, derisively referred to as “Breeze-by” when he was minus-31 two seasons ago, was probably not campaigning for his job when he put together a plus-9 2001-02. Still, the 31-year-old veteran had to at least heard of Komisarek. And why not? There aren’t many big, mobile defensemen in the Canadiens' stable. Komisarek, last season’s top defensemen in the CCHA, is both. He signed a three-year deal with Montreal after leaving the University of Michigan, where he scored 11 goals and 30 points (39 games) in his sophomore season.
Also in the hunt for a spot on the blue line, Ron Hainsey, who played 63 games in the AHL last season, where he put up 31 points in 63 games. Hainsey, though, is significantly smaller than Komisarek.
Jamie MacDonald is a CNNSI.com producer based in New York.