Matt Williams column: Not rooting for Montreal ... and not for the reason you think

·6 min read

Jul. 6—Passionate sports fans need villains.

There's nothing better than a heel that raises the blood pressure to make a win by your favorite team that much sweeter. If that fave falls on its face, at least with a good villain you can enjoy when they lose, too, and their formerly boastful crowd is forced to share in the misery.

Which brings us to the Montreal Canadiens, villains of Boston's hockey hub for almost a century now. Watching the Habs' improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final has put a serious damper on the spirits here in New England, especially after a Bruins team many thought were true Cup contenders flopped in the second round (again).

Montreal lived to fight another day Monday night, beating Tampa Bay in overtime to stave off being swept in a Final for the first time since 1952. The Lightning hoisting a second straight Cup still seems inevitable, thankfully.

I've got to be honest, the Canadiens as a franchise don't really bother me that much. I think its a matter of when you were born; a kid watching hockey in the 60's or 70's has plenty of traumatic memories from the old Montreal Forum. Coming of age in the 90's, the enemies of the state were the New York Yankees; the Habs a mere after thought despite a miserable playoff loss at their hands before the NHL lockout of 2005.

A few older fans wanted to throw tomatoes at me when I said I could live with Montreal in the Finals if the New Jersey Nets lost in the NBA playoffs. It was said partially in jest; I didn't expect the Canadiens to win a game in the second round. Still, I don't regret the proclamation.

On a visceral, sports fan level, the attitude and cut of the jib of Kyrie Irving and his fellow superstars bothers me much more than the histrionics and egomaniacal fanbase of the Canadiens.

Yet I still want Montreal to lose. As soon as possible, hopefully in Game 5 later this week. Why? A bad team winning the Stanley Cup is not good for the game.

Bad? How could a team that outlasted all but one other hockey club in the toughest grind of a tournament in sports be bad?

Look at Montreal's mediocre record, 18th in the NHL. Three teams that didn't even make the playoffs had more regular season points and five teams that didn't make the playoffs bested the Habs' moribund goal differential of minus-9. A team like that has no business winning a championship. It would never happen in the NBA and probably wouldn't happen in baseball or football, either.

It would certainly never happen in European soccer, where championships are awarded on the regular season table instead of the somewhat random postseason. I'm not quite on the Oakland A's inspired bandwagon of "the playoffs aren't a fair sample size and aren't real." I believe in the clutch and late thing and in the character needed to win when there's money on the table.

There's no doubt Montreal benefitted greatly from playing a Toronto franchise bereft of playoff character in these playoffs and seeing a Vegas outfit that's quickly becoming on the great big game flopping franchises in sports.

But ... you can't have a team like them winning a championship. Passionate hockey fans think the fact that a No. 8 seed can beat a No. 1 with some regularity in the Stanley Cup playoffs is a feature rather than a bug. Over the past few years, I've come to disagree. Hockey needs good teams and it needs them to win.

If it's all random once you get to the postseason, why bother with the 82-game, months long grind? Why invest? Why bother getting the best possible players, developing the most skill and building a juggernaut if a team full of truculent veterans is going to get lucky in a seven game series anyway?

Devoted hockey people will tell you those highly skilled teams are missing some element needed to chase the Cup, that they lack some toughness or unseen guts. I say they lack luck and if your sport comes down to blind luck you risk telling casual fans that there's nothing to see here.

Montreal's a team that not one of our Salem News and Gloucester Times sports family predicted to reach a Final, either in the postseason or the preseason. Sure, none of us predicted Tampa either, besides noted hockey maven Nick Giannino in the preseason, so maybe we're not the best barometer. The Habs have two dynamic, great young players in Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki. They have some name veteran leaders like Eric Staal, Corey Perry and Shea Weber. They have a great goalie in Carey Price, although his .901 save percentage this season and .922 this postseason is hardly the stuff of legend.

If they win a Stanley Cup, anybody can. Which is neat if your team happens to be in the bottom half of the NHL, but if you're looking to grow the game or force your top ten NHL team to make changes it's terrible. A good team that see Montreal win says, "we're better, if we get the luck next year that's us, we're good." A casual fan says, "if anybody can win, I don't need to see this, what channel is Giannis on?"

If (when?) Tampa wins the Cup, it's a different story. It's a borderline dynasty, two straight Cups with a President's Trophy before that and a Finals appearance in 2015. Rival teams have to say, "What can we do to reach their level?" and it turns into an arms race. Casual fans say, "I've got the see these guys."

Some hockey fans hopped on the Montreal bandwagon as the lesser of two evils, worried about Tampa's salary cap situation or general arrogance. Not here. Tom Brady became a Lightning fan when he moved to Tampa and that's good enough for me.

So when the puck drops Wednesday night in Tampa, I'll be pulling for the home team to hoist the Cup and I'll be sliding Montreal in as the villain. Not because of history or the Habs past transgressions, but because I think a team of their caliber winning would be lousy for the future.

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You can contact Matt Williams at MWilliams@salemnews.com and let him know why he's wrong on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.

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