What the Puck: Are Habs fans holding on to a pipe dream?

“For the rest of the season we’re just looking to the younger players to develop and see some good momentum, see some good things.”

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Back in the glory years, it was the Cup or nothing. Anything less was a failure.

But Habs fans have changed in the three decades since the Canadiens last won a Stanley Cup. For better or worse, people today are satisfied with much smaller victories.

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When general manager Kent Hughes traded Sean Monahan to the Winnipeg Jets a couple of weeks ago, Hughes was officially raising the white flag on the season. The message came through loud and clear: There will be no surprise playoff run in 2024. In fact, there might well not be one in 2025 either.

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I was chatting recently in one of my Habs text groups and my friends were suggesting the team will only seriously compete for a championship in maybe 2029 or 2030. And they’re OK with that! Me, I’m a little more impatient, as you know.

But the conversation had me thinking about how a fan base that once might have been the least patient in the hockey world has somehow suddenly become so Zen about losing. Montreal has not been doing a lot of contending in recent years. Yes they made it to the final in 2021, but there are 8,000 asterisks attached to that astonishing run. During the COVID season, so many rules changed and it’s not even clear if they would have made the playoffs if they weren’t playing in the Canadian division and clocking up victory after victory against the truly-terrible (at the time) Vancouver Canucks.

If you exclude that run, the CH last won a playoff series in 2015 against a not-great Ottawa Senators team. Yet even with so little success, a lot of fans are still down with the program and aren’t overly bothered by the fact that the pipe dream of the Habs making the playoffs this season turned out to be just that — a dream.

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At McLean’s Pub Tuesday just before the meaningless game between Montreal and the almost absurdly bad Anaheim Ducks, fan Alexis Paré said he wasn’t in the least depressed by the fact it’s now a given his favourite team is not going to make the post-season this year.

“No we’re not depressed,” Paré said. “We were expecting it after all. I think we started getting our hopes a bit too high because they had an opening of the season that was surprisingly good. But now they’re where they’re supposed to be.”

Many fans are just happy to see the young players develop, particularly first-liners Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky, all three of whom are in the midst of hot streaks.

“For the rest of the season we’re just looking to the younger players to develop and see some good momentum, see some good things,” Vince Lebrun said.

I bumped into two fan duos who travelled far to come see the Canadiens play this week. Brad Moore and his adult son Branson flew in from Sydney, Australia, to catch three games this week. Scott Hinckley and his wife, Patti, came up from Florida to watch a few games as well. It’s an annual trip for all of them.

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“I’m very much into the Habs, every way you can imagine, financially, spiritually, emotionally,” said Scott Hinckley, who originally hails from Maine and now lives in Florida. “The old word that was used 50 years ago was ‘mystique’. I love the cultural thing. I should be fluent in French, but I’m terrible. I kind of subscribe to the notion that hockey is a religion in Montreal and Quebec and it’s a religion for me that’s for sure. I throw out a lot of F bombs and my wife often has to walk out of the room when we’re watching at home.”

Brad and Branson, who lived for six years in Montreal, watch all the games back home in Sydney. With the time difference, they’ll sit down on a Sunday morning with their coffees and watch the Saturday night game. Like fans here, the Moores are willing to live without playoffs for another year. That’s what a Habs fan does — you live with the ups and downs and you never lose hope.

“It’s not going to be an easy couple of months but we’ve gotta be optimists,” Brad said about playing out the string this year. “We love the Habs. So we gotta be optimists.”

That said, the father and son had to sit through Sunday afternoon’s brutal 7-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues and that one even stretched the patience of hard-core Habs fans like them. They left before the final buzzer and all three of us agreed there was an embarrassing lack of effort from the Canadiens. It was just before game time Tuesday when we spoke and Brad was crossing his fingers that they wouldn’t have to return to Sydney having seen three straight losses from their heroes.

“The only thing we’d love is if the Habs would win (Tuesday),” Brad said. “Just give us one game Habs, one game tonight.”

Well sometimes dreams do come true. There may not be any playoffs to enjoy this season, but the team gave the Moores their wish — they got to watch a resounding victory Tuesday against the Ducks. And there was Habs magic in the air with three firsts — Slafkovsky’s first three-point night, Brandon Gignac’s first NHL goal and Cayden Primeau’s first NHL shutout. In short, the two Moores finally had some great memories to take home with them on the flight back Down Under.

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