The Montreal Canadiens will face the New York Rangers Thursday in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final. They forced that game by extending the series on Tuesday, in a wild 7-4 win that saw them light up the previously unbeatable Henrik Lundqvist.
So what happens Thursday? Your guess is as good as mine. The Canadiens’ playoff run has been one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, already featuring a sweep, a seven-gamer, a major injury, and a rotating cast of heroes and goats.
But here’s one thing we can count on: The game will produce some sort of controversy. It wouldn’t be a 2014 Montreal Canadiens playoff game without some.
And we’re not just talking the run-of-the-mill stuff every team goes through this time of year — a weird bounce here, a possible dive there, and a healthy dose of referee-baiting between each game. No, the Canadiens are well past all that. They’ve spent the last six weeks finding new and exciting ways to give hockey fans something to argue about.
Some of it has to do with their being the only Canadian team in the playoffs, and all the media scrutiny that goes along with that. Some of it may just be a weird fluke. And, let’s be honest, a big part of it is that this is self-inflicted by a Montreal team specialized in drumming up minor controversies as part of a concentrated “the whole world is against us” campaign they’ve used to define their playoff run. Hey, if it works, it works.
But whatever is behind the phenomenon, you have to admire any team that can generate more postseason controversies than games played. So, in honor of the Canadiens’ achievement, let’s take a look back at the most controversial moments of their playoff run, in increasing order of ridiculousness.
No. 20: The Brandon Prust hit
Of all of Montreal’s playoff controversies, this was the most straightforward. A guy throws a hit that injures an opponent, in this case New York’s Derek Stepan. Some think it was dirty, others call it clean. The league weighs in with a suspension, which the player grudgingly accepts.
All of which is pretty much par for the playoff course. Then again, we’re just dealing with the hit itself — the fallout comes later in our list.
No. 19: Montreal bars sue the Bell Centre
By now you’ve heard about how Montreal fans have taken to packing the Bell Centre to cheer on the Habs, even for road games. The Canadiens have been inviting fans to watch the games on the arena’s big screen, with portions of the proceeds going to charity.
It’s a cool story, and further evidence of just how hockey-obsessed Montreal can get during a playoff run. But not everyone is happy about it; Montreal bar owners are going to court to try to stop the team from staging the events — or at least to prevent the team from selling beer during them. Have you ever seen 21,000 die-hard Montreal Canadiens fans who don’t have access to beer? I haven’t, but I once had to spend a half hour with two, and I feel qualified to tell you this is a really bad idea.
No. 18: P.K. Subban gets pelted with a water bottle after scoring an OT winner
Also, go ahead and get used to seeing P.K. Subban’s name, because he’s going to show up in this list kind of a lot.
No. 17: The John Moore hit
Moore’s hit on Dale Weise during Tuesday’s game earned him a five-minute major and a two-game suspension/hearing with the league’s player safety department. It also led to a nearly instantaneous battle to see which fan base could most loudly declare that it was the exact same hit as the Prust play — Habs fans, to show it deserved a suspension, and Rangers fans, to show it didn’t deserve a penalty.
It wasn’t the same hit, but everyone decided to ignore that detail because it’s fun to scream at each other.
No. 16: The Carey Price injury
Like the Prust/Stepan hit, this one followed the traditional hit/injury/debate pattern. But it wasn’t a typical incident, for a couple of reasons. First, the injured player was Montreal goalie Carey Price, quite possibly the most important player in the entire series. And second, the “hit” wasn’t a bodycheck but a random collision the offending player, Chris Kreider, had no chance of avoiding.
OR DID HE? While the replay seemed to pretty clearly show a player being tripped while on a breakaway at top speed, then careering into the crease area and unfortunately into the waiting goaltender, not everyone in Montreal was convinced. Prust called it an “accidentally on purpose” play, and coach Michel Therrien accused Kreider of not doing enough to avoid contact.
What that “enough” would have entailed is unclear, although freezing the action Zack Morris–style to move Price out of the way apparently should have been an option. Price finished the period but will miss the rest of the series, which should have devastated Montreal’s chances but instead just paved the way for Dustin Tokarski to descend from the hockey heavens.
Still, a player was injured, and that’s no laughing matter. Right, Coach Therrien?
No. 15: Michel Therrien knows where you hurt
Rangers center Derick Brassard left Game 1 with an injury that would force him to miss the second and third games. As per playoff protocol, the Rangers wouldn’t reveal anything specific about the nature of the injury.
But that didn’t stop the Canadiens from finding out. Or at least, that’s the impression Therrien tried to leave before Game 4, when he told reporters the team knew the specifics of Brassard’s injury because “hockey is a small world.”
Where most heard an odd bit of gamesmanship, others heard an outright threat. That probably really annoyed Therrien, since I’m sure it’s frustrating when every minor transgression by a coaching staff gets blown up into front-page news. Why, yes, that would be ironic foreshadowing of a later selection, thanks for noticing.
No. 14: Racist Bruins fans vs. P.K. Subban
This is probably the Habs controversy that’s earned the most attention so far, and it’s a tough one to slot in. There’s nothing funny about idiots taking to Twitter to throw slurs around over a hockey game, and when reports surfaced that there had been up to 17,000 racist tweets directed at Subban, the hockey world was understandably outraged.
But this particular story comes with a catch: It may not have been true, at least to the extent we were led to believe. While even one racist tweet is too many, and there certainly were more than a few spewed in Subban’s direction, there’s at least some evidence that the volume was exaggerated significantly. If so, the hockey world may have spent a few days beating up the Bruins fan base based on bad information.
And speaking of horrible things a fan base may or may not have actually done …
No. 13: Habs fans hang Zdeno Chara in effigy
That would be a pretty horrible thing to do, which is why it was nice to discover that Montreal fans probably didn’t. The photo that went around on social media appears to be an old one, perhaps from a Toronto bar, but not a Montreal one. Nice job finding a way to sneak into a playoff story, Toronto.
No. 12: Subban dislodges the net
Late in Game 3 against the Bruins, Subban seemed to intentionally dislodge the Montreal net with the Bruins pressing for the tying goal. Technically, that could be a penalty shot. Realistically, it’s a rule that’s almost never called, so getting worked up over it seemed like a waste of energy.
But still, you can understand why Bruins fans would be upset, especially after breaking the play down in slow motion. It’s hard to blame them. See? Not every one of these controversies has to be dumb!
No. 11: Habs captain Brian Gionta snubs anthem singer Ginette Reno’s handshake attempt
But yeah, some of them were pretty dumb.
No. 10: Daniel Carcillo takes a swing at a linesman
OK, maybe this one shouldn’t even make the list, since it doesn’t really involve the Canadiens directly. The Prust hit inspired the scrum that led to it, but beyond that, this was really a Rangers moment that happened to feature some Habs milling around in the background.
But still — a player getting a suspension for taking a swing at a linesman deserves at least a mention. And at the very least, we can include it as a worthwhile reminder that the Habs aren’t to blame for everything.
Besides, no Montreal Canadien would ever do such a thing.
No. 9: The shirt off her back
What happens when an 11-year-old girl wears her favorite Bobby Orr shirt in Quebec? The school cancels its planned Montreal Canadiens jersey day, of course. Apparently a more reasonable approach, like praying for a hundred million moths, wasn’t an option.
No. 8: Subban bails on Thornton
In Game 2 of their second-round series, Boston’s Shawn Thornton appeared to have Subban lined up for a big hit. Subban had already dished the puck off and was off-balance, and he responded to the sight of an incoming Thornton by bailing to the ice, sending the Bruins tough guy tumbling over him. Thornton was shaken up on the play.
The Boston media, displaying their typical level of even-keeled objectivity, referred to the play as a “punk move.” Others pointed out that Subban seemed to be making the smart choice. Everyone else just felt thankful that we got the inevitable Subban/Thornton controversy out of the way early in the series and certainly wouldn’t be hearing from those two again.
No. 7: The dastardly French referee
Admit it, you forgot about this one, didn’t you? While the Habs’ Pandora’s box of endless controversy didn’t really get pried open until the Bruins series, there was one contentious moment in their opening-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That came in Game 3, when the Lightning had the apparent go-ahead goal wiped off the books after the official determined that Price had been interfered with. It was a questionable call, and Montreal went on to win the game 3-2, so you could understand why Tampa Bay fans would be upset.
But the situation took a turn when Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron Maclean suggested the referee being French Canadian may have played into the perception of how the call went down. That’s a touchy subject around these parts, and Maclean quickly apologized, even though some argued he didn’t need to.
It was all a pretty big deal at the time. These days, we look back on the time when the Habs made it through an entire playoff series with only one major controversy as the good old days.
No. 6: Anyone who wondered whether the Habs were now Canada’s team
No. Just … no.
No. 5: Stepan’s “fishy” injury
Remember how we said that Prust’s hit on Stepan was relatively straightforward as far as these things go? Yeah, that lasted about one whole day.
Before the puck had dropped for the next game, there were already whispers that Stepan’s broken jaw might not be all that broken. Part of that was due to Vigneault refusing to give a firm update on his player’s status, a move Habs veteran Danny Briere described as “fishy.” Briere wasn’t necessarily accusing the Rangers of exaggerating Stepan’s injury, although some took it that way.
But the incident conjured up memories of the “Dr. Recchi” incident of 2012, in which Mark Recchi was savaged by Canadiens fans for questioning an injury to Max Pacioretty. Oddly, Briere didn’t come in for quite the same level of criticism in Montreal.
Stepan missed Game 4, then returned for Game 5. Since he missed a game in the NHL playoffs, we can assume his jaw was probably not just broken but actually disintegrated.
No. 4: That whole weird chest-thumping/flexing thing with the Bruins
This one was forgotten rather quickly, but I feel like it’s worth a high spot on our list just for the sheer absurdity of it: an NHL feud based on players flexing and chest-pounding at each other like amped-up pro wrestlers.
First Boston’s Milan Lucic chest-thumped at the Canadiens. Then Montreal’s Dale Weise chest-thumped back at the Bruins. Then Lucic flexed. So Weise flexed back.
The whole thing was strange, but lots of fans found Weise’s act pretty funny. Lucic apparently did not, as we would come to find out.
No. 3: The handshake line of doom
After the Canadiens’ upset Game 7 win over their archrivals, the two teams lined up for the traditional post-series handshake line. It’s one of the most hallowed traditions in pro sports, in which hockey players who’ve spent two weeks maiming each other put all that aside in a show of sportsmanship.
Or they threaten to bleeping kill each other next year. One or the other.
Lucic went for the latter option, and as you’d expect was widely criticized for the move. We covered this when it happened — Lucic screwed up, but he didn’t say anything worse than most players say to an opponent at some point. As much as we’d love to think that all the bad blood immediately dissipates once the handshake line forms, that’s not entirely realistic.
But hopefully we can all agree to give Lucic bonus points for calling Weise a “baby.” You don’t see that particular insult getting broken out much these days. When I sit down to write my future piece on the most unlikely return to relevance in the postseason by something you forgot had existed, it’s going to be a tight race between calling somebody a baby and Ilya Bryzgalov.
No. 2: Rangers coaches get kicked out of Canadiens practice
Therrien’s “threat” to the injured Brassard wasn’t even the biggest controversy to emerge between Games 3 and 4 of the conference finals. Yes, the Habs and Rangers are now so committed to nonstop controversy that they’ve started multitasking. And this time, they managed to include both coaching staffs and a general manager.
At some point during Montreal’s off-day practice on Saturday, someone noticed that several members of the Rangers coaching staff were watching the action. Therrien interrupted the proceedings and ordered his New York colleagues to leave.
The Canadiens cited a gentlemen’s agreement between the teams to stay away from each other’s practices; the Rangers said there was no such deal. Eventually the Ranger coaches did leave, although GM Glen Sather stayed behind, potentially peeing on things to mark his territory. Despite an overnight round of peace talks, New York coach Alain Vigneault was still furious on Sunday.
No. 1: The squirt
With the seconds ticking down in Game 5, the Boston Bruins were on the verge of wrapping up a hard-fought 4-2 win. The heavily favored Bruins would take a 3-2 series lead and head into Game 6 with a chance to wrap up the series and grab a few days of rest before heading to the conference finals.
And then, Shawn Thornton decided it would be a good idea to do this:
Hey, maybe Subban looked thirsty! [Checks notes.] Wait, did we do that line already? There have been so many of these, I’m starting to lose track.
It goes without saying that with this many controversies, it takes a truly special moment to rank as the most ridiculous of them all. But I think this one qualifies. It wasn’t an especially dangerous play, and it was extremely unlikely to cost the Bruins the game even if a penalty had been called. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that big of a deal.
It was just incredibly dumb. And that’s why it lands in our top spot. Almost every other item we’ve covered may have seemed silly, but if you dug around enough, you could eventually find some strand of reason behind it. Thornton’s squirt was just a bizarre, nonsensical lapse in judgment from a guy who should know better.
The play wasn’t all that big a deal, but in hindsight, doesn’t it seem weird that we all didn’t make it into one? Remember, the Bruins were on the verge of taking control of the series. After Thornton’s squirt, the Canadiens won the next two games by a combined score of 7-1. Did Thornton cause that? No, of course not. Does that seem like the sort of thing we’d pretend anyway, just so we could have an easy scapegoat? I’d say so.
Instead, Thornton was fined, the moment generated this all-time classic GIF, and we all just moved on with our lives. That was probably a good call. After all, this is the 2014 Montreal Canadiens playoff run. We’d all better learn to pace ourselves.