Montreal as Hockey Mecca Still Survives 

Montreal as Hockey Mecca Still Survives

If there is any place where hockey is still a religion, it is here along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, where the NHL was founded and where the Montreal Canadiens have taken home at least one Stanley Cup every decade since they won their first in 1916, before the league was even conceived. Every decade, that is, except this one.

Since the NHL was born, the Canadiens have won a league-record 23 Stanley Cups, second among North American professional franchises to the Yankees' 26 World Series championships.

But Montreal has not won the Cup since 1993. The 11-season drought (the 2004-5 season was canceled because of a lockout) equals the longest in franchise history.

"The mystique is gone," said The Montreal Gazette's Red Fisher, at 79 the acknowledged dean of NHL sportswriters, whose first assignment covering the Canadiens was turned into the infamous Richard Riot in March 1955.

"I don't see the mystique," Fisher said. "I don't feel the mystique. After all, the Rocket and the Pocket and Beliveau and Geoffrion and Moore and Harvey and Plante and Dryden and so on, they've retired. The mystique simply disappeared into the mist in the "80s."

After a coaching change at the season's midway point, the Canadiens squeaked into the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's seventh-seeded team. They took a surprising 2-0 lead in their first-round series against the second-seeded Carolina Hurricanes before losing Wednesday night's Game 3, 2-1, in overtime.

Carolina's Eric Staal scored the decisive goal on a power play 3 minutes 38 seconds into the overtime.

Even though they are no longer known as the Flying Frenchmen, Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge are relevant again, for the moment, at least. They now face the prospect of playing without Saku Koivu, their captain, who sustained an injury to his left eye after being hit in the face by the stick of Carolina forward Justin Williams in the second period.

Koivu is sidelined indefinitely, and the team announced yesterday that the full extent of the injury won't be known until more tests are completed in two or three days when the swelling subsides.

Before Wednesday night's game, Montreal's first home game of the playoffs, the Canadiens celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1975-76 Cup champions with a nostalgic video montage that had the capacity crowd of 21,273 on its feet cheering wildly.

The 1975-76 team lost just one game during the playoffs to begin the franchise's last real dynasty. Montreal won four consecutive Cups from 1976 to 1979. The Canadiens won again in 1986 and 1993 but have not advanced to the conference finals since.

There is cautious optimism here that this year could be different, and much of it stems from the sudden emergence of Cristobal Huet, a 30-year-old, French-born goaltender. Huet has morphed from a journeyman backup for the Los Angeles Kings the past two seasons into an instant folk hero in Quebec.

Huet earned the starting job for good at the start of February. He went on to lead the league with a .929 save percentage and carried the Canadiens to a playoff berth, evoking comparisons to Patrick Roy, the former Montreal great.

Bob Gainey, the team's general manager, who took over behind the bench for Claude Julien in mid-January, said Wednesday morning that those comparisons may be premature.

"Well, you can make any comparisons you want," said Gainey, a Hall of Fame wing who was a mainstay on the last Canadiens' dynasty and won his fifth and last Stanley Cup as a player in 1986, Roy's rookie season. "I think what you're trying to do is compare a great Bordeaux with grapes that haven't bloomed yet."

That excitement, though, partially stems from the fact that, unlike most of the league's other cities, hockey is truly the only game in town here.

"It's a different pressure," said the veteran defenseman Mathieu Dandenault, who won three Cups with Detroit and remembered what it felt like in 1997, when the Red Wings won their first Cup since 1955.

Because the Canadiens long ago ceased to be Cup contenders every season, the expectations here have drastically changed.

"I think the people here are pretty realistic," said Carolina forward Mark Recchi, who played parts of five seasons with the Canadiens from 1995 to 1999. "They want to see effort. And I think they enjoy this team."

The fans especially appreciate Huet, whom they serenaded with chants of his last name Wednesday every time he came up with a big save.

The Bell Center, which replaced the historic Montreal Forum in 1996, may still be the loudest arena in the league. The Canadiens sold out every game in the regular season.

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