The Canadiens arrived in this rainy, gridlocked city yesterday just in time to hit early rush-hour traffic, their playoff hopes as forlorn as the grimy streets after Tuesday night's stunning turn of events, when a 3-1 lead became a heartbreaking, double-overtime loss.
One instant the Canadiens and Bruins were at center ice, locked in a titanic struggle. The next moment Glen Murray's shot was in the net and the crowd at the Bell Centre was so stunned that most of the 21,273 initially remained in their seats as though expecting divine intervention -- or at least that referee Mick McGeough would go to the eye in the sky, as he appears not to possess any such organ.
But there would be no reprieve.
Alex Kovalev, who had just played a titanic game, was instantly fitted with the goat's horns for letting go of the puck after he was slashed by Travis Green. The Canadiens' playoff hopes were hanging by a thread. And even though Sheldon Souray and coach Claude Julien were backtracking yesterday, claiming they meant "we" should not quit on the play rather than "he," the damage was done. Damage that may extend into the offseason, when the events of Tuesday night might make it less likely that the talented Russian will sign a long-term deal to stay in Montreal.
What happened had more to do with exhaustion and one-minute shifts and playing 33 minutes of high-speed hockey than with any failure on Kovalev's part, but that doesn't change the final score. At Montreal Dorval International Airport yesterday, Kovalev was wandering down the corridor while his teammates sat at the gate, his right hand bandaged. "How's the hand?" he was asked.
"It's still a little sore," he said.
But not as sore as his feelings toward the referees, who have had meetings with Dave Newell, the NHL's supervisor of officials, about slashing during this playoff season but have failed to contain it. Trouble is, it's not the refs who have put Kovalev's team in this hole -- nor is it Kovalev or even Mike Ribeiro, despite that audition for the lead in "The Exorcist Part IV" he staged Sunday night.
Apart from the first period of Game 1, the Canadiens have held the edge in virtually every aspect of this series.
Kovalev is playing at another level but a long list of Canadiens have distinguished themselves with skill, heart, and hard work.
No, if these guys were slumped in their chairs at Dorval yesterday, it was because their strength has been their weakness. Goaltender Jose Theodore, who stole one two years ago, has been just ordinary enough to leave the door open for the Bruins. And they have been all too happy to walk through.
It's not that Theodore has been awful. But he has not been as good as the Jose-Bar-the-Door of 2002 and he hasn't been quite as good as 23-year-old Boston sensation Andrew Raycroft.
The Canadiens are not behind because Ribeiro won an Oscar, or because Kovalev let the pain get the best of him at a critical moment. They're behind because their superstar goalie has been no more than a star, if that.
If the Canadiens appeared to have an edge going into this series, it was in goal. True, Raycroft appears to have the inside track on the Calder Trophy ahead of Michael Ryder but he's a rookie, for the love of Patrick Roy. Theodore has been here before and he has a Vezina Trophy and a Hart Trophy, and he has already proven that he can steal a series.
Well, here's a flash: so can Raycroft. On the ice, Raycroft has been almost Ken Dryden cool. Off the ice, he has been unflappable, down to earth, funny. Tuesday night, Raycroft made 42 saves, 30 after the second period.
With the Kovalev-Saku Koivu-Richard Zednik line buzzing around his net in sortie after sortie, Raycroft hauled in every puck when it mattered most.
He was the reason Harry Sinden, who has often wanted to commit hari-kiri after these little Montreal-Boston skirmishes, was smiling Tuesday and saying that "to win on a play like that was kind of poetic justice after the way that player [Ribeiro] acted." And this poet is a rookie.
"You can't say enough about Andrew Raycroft," said Murray. "Those are things that win games for you there."
Raycroft said, "After the third period, I felt real good. I was kind of saying to myself, `I could do this all night with the way everything's hitting me.' "
Uh-oh. Sounds like a guy who could send the Canadiens on vacation beginning tonight.
Talk all you want about ghosts and refs, dives and drops, and flukes. Those are all subplots. In all those legendary playoff battles between the Canadiens and the Bruins, how often did the Beantown bunch have the edge in goal? How many times have Boston snipers been foiled by Georges Vezina or Jacques Plante, Dryden or Roy? How often have Montreal forwards quaked in their skates at the sight of Byron Dafoe or Eddie Johnston? It's not too late for Theodore to snatch it back. Not too late for him to give the ghosts a chance to come into play. But Theodore no longer has a margin for error. Raycroft has seen to that.