Canadiens feel heat of spring


Ask anyone in Montreal and you'll be told, "Hockey is not a sport; it's our religion." And the Montreal Canadiens have been close to all-powerful for the past 24 years. In all that time, with good teams and bad teams, the Canadiens didn't miss the playoffs.

But the Canadiens are in danger of missing the NHL playoffs this year. With seven games left in their season, they are three points from tying for the last playoff spot.

"Fans will always be upset that the Canadiens may not make the playoffs," said Marc DeFoy, who has covered the Canadiens for the Journal de Montreal for the past 11 years. "But it is not a surprise. They know they don't have the team."

In fact, 61 percent of respondents to a Journal survey last month predicted the Canadiens would not make the playoffs.

And yet, even this season, the Canadiens are supposed to win every game, because they always have been the best. And every night they don't win, they hear about it loud and clear at the Forum that night and the next day when they go out for coffee or groceries.

No one sleeps after a bad game in Montreal, said Mark Recchi, who was traded there from Philadelphia this season and learned what pressure really is.

"When you lose by your own fault, you have to swallow your pill," said the great Jean Beliveau before Montreal played the Washington Capitals on Monday.

Beliveau played 20 seasons with Montreal and was the captain of the 1969-70 team, the last one not to make the postseason.

"In 1970, we still had 92 points," he said. "But [this team] they still have [seven] games to go here, if they lose them, then . . . all they will be able to say is mea culpa."

The fans, the players, the media, nearly everyone connected with the Canadiens talk about the pressure of winning -- and about the ghosts of the great past Canadiens, who always have worked a little magic for each ensuing team.

But even the ghosts seem unsure about their loyalty to these Canadiens.

They used to be everywhere, but after the Saturday night call that disallowed a Montreal goal and allowed the Boston Bruins to escape the Forum with a 3-2 win, Recchi said, it's as if people -- or ghosts -- in high places are out to get Montreal.

But this Montreal team is 3-17-2 on the road, and the road wins have come against the Ottawa Senators (twice) and Florida Panthers. And the Canadiens will be moving to a new building, where luxury boxes will add to the owners' coffers, so fans are asking, "Will the ghosts move with the team?"

Marcel Bourdon said he knows the answer. He is 61 years old, has been a Canadiens fan his entire life and has worked in the Forum for 15 years.

"Let's face it," Bourdon said. "The ghosts can't help this year, because we haven't got a good team. We've got a bad year, and we're disappointed because we're used to having a winning team.

"But the ghosts," he said, shrugging and looking around. "It's hard to say about them. But I think they'll only be present if the current players play with the same kind of spirit those old Canadiens played with. If they play because they care about and love the game, the ghosts will be there for them. If not, they won't be back."

Baltimore Hockey Club

Even without a formal news conference to announce their existence, the newest American Hockey League franchise, currently known as the Baltimore Hockey Club, has sold more than 100 season tickets.

Owner Bob Teck said yesterday he "expects to complete a deal with Anaheim" shortly that will make the Baltimore team the Mighty Ducks' AHL affiliate.

AHL president Dave Andrews said the issue of what division the Baltimore team will play in will be addressed at the league's June 5 meeting, after expansion is completed for the coming season. Andrews said he hopes to see Greensboro, N.C., complete its application.

There is also speculation that Raleigh, N.C., could apply for membership, which would make setting up a southern division appealing, with the new Lexington, Ky., franchise, Baltimore and Hershey, Pa.

"That would be a nice picture," Andrews said. "But we're not at all sure both of the North Carolina teams will come in, and we may have to come up with a different arrangement, a different look."

No matter what division it's in, when Baltimore plays its first home game, former Skipjacks owner Tom Ebright said he hopes to be here joining in the festivities.

"I talked to Bob and told him we should set up a dunking machine on the stage and raise money for charity," Ebright said. "I think a lot of people in Baltimore would like to do old Ebright in. I've been impressed with the way he's handling things. He's already made inroads in the business community and with WBAL [radio] that we weren't able to do the whole time we were there."

Ebright's Portland Pirates, by the way, are tied at one game apiece with the Providence Bruins in the first round of the AHL playoffs. Game 3 is in Providence tonight.

Positive by nature

The Capitals have lost five of their past six games, and the team held a short, closed-door meeting after Monday's 5-2 loss in Montreal. But when team captain Dale Hunter was asked about the state of affairs, he had this to say:

"We're not negative people. Haven't you noticed that? To us, it's not five losses in six games. We beat Florida, and then we lost to Quebec and Montreal; that means we've only lost the last two."

There are two points between their seventh-place Eastern Conference standing and ninth -- which would make their playoff site a sunny golf course far from the NHL postseason.

On the other hand, maybe Hunter has a point. The Caps couldn't score worth anything over the first six weeks of the season. Then they were brilliant for five weeks. Now, they're nearing the end of a three-week drought.

If you think like Hunter, the Caps should be breaking out of the slump just in time for a brilliant playoff run -- assuming they can hold on long enough to make the playoffs.

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