Mendes on NHL: Lowering the bar

In a few days, the sting of losing to the Philadelphia Flyers will wear off and fans of the Montreal Canadiens will reflect on a successful and memorable season.

In the past, Habs fans had the reputation of saying they would only accept a Stanley Cup and nothing else. Anything short of that goal was considered a failure.

But after going 17 years without a Cup, this unexpected run to the conference finals was met with a buzz and passion amongst the Habs faithful that used to only be reserved for the last round only.

So now, I feel the need to ask two questions:

1. Is just reaching the conference finals considered a success in Canada?

2. Should we re-consider the way we treated the Leafs back-to-back runs to the final four back in 1993 & 1994?

In the past 20 years (1991-2010), virtually every Canadian team to reach the conference finals has done so as an underdog. The ’94 Canucks were the 7th seed in the Western Conference that year. The ’99 Leafs came out of nowhere to reach the final four. The ’06 Oilers had no business going that far. And this year’s edition of the Habs fall into this category as well — unless you had the foresight to predict that Mike Cammalleri would be the re-incarnation of Guy Lafleur, circa 1977.

It seems like every time we have a favourite team in Canada, they wilt under the pressure of playing in a big hockey market. The Ottawa Senators of the 2000s really struggled in the playoffs, despite terrific regular seasons. The only time they went to the final came in 2007 — the year after they lost Zdeno Chara, Domink Hasek and most people considered them an afterthought in the Eastern Conference. (They did reach the conference finals in 2003 after winning the President’s Trophy, only to lose a Game 7 on home ice to New Jersey.)

Ditto for the Vancouver Canucks. Those Naslund-Bertuzzi-Cloutier teams never reached the conference finals and the biggest fear for the left coasters now, is that the Sedins-Kesler-Luongo group is headed in that same direction.

Why is it so hard for Canadian teams to perform when the expectations are so high? The Flames have never reached the bar they set when they made the Cup final in 2004. Heck, they haven’t even won a playoff series since.

The Oilers have been plummeting in the standings since 2006. And the Senators — who appeared on the verge of winning it all in 2007 — haven’t won a playoff series since losing to Anaheim in the final.

I can only wonder what the future holds for the Habs next season, but if these other Canadian teams are any indication, Montreal fans might want to brace themselves for some disappointment. It’s going to be hard for the 2011 Habs to live up to the hype. That’s just the nature of the beast in Canada. Expectations go up; performance goes down.

We should all acknowledge that reaching the conference finals for a Canadian team is certainly a worthy accomplishment. Given the media scrutiny, fan pressure and the ridiculous microscope these players are living under, winning two rounds north of the border is probably the equivalent of winning three in America.

But when will we finally have a team that does it two years in a row? Or is that even possible anymore?

In case you’re wondering, the last Canadian-based team to make two straight trips to the conference finals was the Toronto Maple Leafs of the early 1990s. Maybe you’ve heard of them. Doug Gilmour. Wendel Clark. Pat Burns. Felix The Cat. You probably know a Leafs fan who boasted about those teams, to the point you wanted to punch him out in his Sylvain Lefebvre jersey.

Fans of the other Canadian teams used to make fun of the Leafs, because they seemed so proud of the fact that their teams made it to the conference finals two years in a row. But when you think about it, the rest of Canada had recent Stanley Cups to hold over the heads of Leafs fans. The Flames had won in 1989; Oilers in 1990; Canadiens in 1993. So at the time, the Leafs fans boasting seemed comical at best.

But now that we fast-forward things, everyone in Canada has a significant drought without the Stanley Cup. Yes, the Leafs haven’t won since 1967. But the other five teams are almost in the same boat, with significant droughts that span at least one generation. Heck, if you’re a Vancouver fan, your mantra now is not unlike that of a Leafs fan: Just one Stanley Cup before I die.

So now that everyone else has a small taste of what it’s like to be a Leafs fan, you might be willing to forgive their celebration of a team that went to back-to-back conference finals in 1993 & 1994. They hold Gilmour, Clark and Andreychuk in the highest regard. Now I know why.

I’m sure Habs fans would be thrilled at the prospect of returning to the conference finals again next year, especially given the track record of the other Canadian teams listed above.

We now know how difficult it is to win in Canada when there are significant expectations on you. And the argument can be made that the 1994 Toronto Maple Leafs were the last team to at least come close to meeting those pre-season expectations.

Almost 20 years later, I think it’s time we tipped our cap to those Leafs teams of the early 1990s for an impressive accomplishment. Nobody has done it since and it’s sure looking like it might take another 20 years for it to happen again.