Canadiens are still out to prove they belong


By Ben Shpigel


The perfect team for these pandemic times dressed in the visiting locker room at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. on Monday night. Just as the NHL postseason started to reclaim a scrap of normalcy, with the Canadian bubbles of last summer replaced by games at home venues — and before frothing crowds, no less — along came the Montreal Canadiens.


They advanced to the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay with an interim interim coach, after ousting two of the league’s behemoths, and despite facing elimination not once or twice but three times in their first-round series. Now, this might pique the nice folks in la belle province, but in any other season Montreal — which finished in the bottom half of the NHL, with the fewest points of any playoff team — probably wouldn’t have qualified for the postseason.


The Canadiens have thrived amid upheaval, reaching this stage by adapting and adjusting.

And if they are to end Canada’s nearly three-decade drought and add another Cup to their heaving trophy case, they must acclimate once more. The opener of the finals restored order to these upended playoffs, as defending champion Tampa Bay scored three third-period goals — two by Nikita Kucherov, who assisted on the other — to win 5-1.


At no point Monday night did the Canadiens resemble the smothering outfit that stifled teams with neutral-zone stinginess and Carey Price’s excellent goaltending. They turned the puck over, lagged at even strength and struggled to swarm the Lightning net. They even yielded a power-play goal, their first since Game 4 of the Toronto series, back on May 25.


“They’re a team that feeds off transition and turnovers, and when you’re forcing things, that’s what’s going to happen,” said Montreal defenseman Jeff Petry, referencing the Lightning’s third-period eruption. “I don’t think it was a blowout by any means. I think we can be better.”


Or rather, Petry knows they can be better. Even though their performance over the past month — 11 victories in 13 games — demonstrated that they belonged among the league’s best, the Canadiens could be forgiven for wanting to prove themselves one final time. The last team to finish a regular season as low as 18th place and reach the Cup finals was Philadelphia, which lost in six games to Chicago in 2010.


The following season, Vancouver made the finals, and no team from Canada had gotten there since. That has been a source of real angst in Canada but especially in Montreal, where le bleu, blanc et rouge forged the league’s first genuine dynasty, winning nine of their record 24 Cups — and five straight — from 1956-70. Not since 1993, when they toppled the Los Angeles Kings in five games (and the Lightning entered the NHL), had the Canadiens returned to the finals.


This appearance, against an Atlantic Division rival, is unlike any other in Montreal’s venerable history. In this truncated 56-game season, the Canadiens soared, then slumped. They fired their coach, then their goaltending coach a week later. They lost Price and defenseman Shea Weber to injuries, then Joel Armia to a positive coronavirus test that further compressed an already condensed schedule. They played their final 25 games in 44 days and lost 15 of them, including their last five. The playoffs beckoned only because, playing in a one-time division populated by all seven Canadian teams, Montreal was slightly less middling than fifth-place Calgary.


“They are exactly where they thought they would be,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Monday morning. “They didn’t go the same route, so it looks different because they look like the Cinderella team. But I don’t believe that for a second. And nobody does in our room.”


Montreal’s general manager, Marc Bergevin, is fond of saying that there are players who get you in, and there are players who get you through. He overhauled the roster in the offseason and again at the trade deadline, acquiring six players who have won Stanley Cups, including defenseman Joel Edmundson, the backup goalie Jake Allen, and forwards Eric Staal, Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry.


“You go down the line, that’s really been helpful to our team this year and we want to use that and I think we have,” said Montreal assistant Luke Richardson, who assumed coaching duties after Dominique Ducharme — who replaced Claude Julien as the head coach on Feb. 24 — contracted the coronavirus. (Ducharme missed the last four games in the semifinal round against the Vegas Golden Knights but expects to return for Game 3 in Montreal.) “Maybe all those players didn’t win the Cup last year, but maybe there’s even more drive to get back there to win that Cup and then know this could be one of their last chances. So that’s a good message to pass around the dressing room.”


The Canadiens, given scant time to practice after Ducharme took over, coalesced midway through their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They stunned Toronto in seven games, swept the Winnipeg Jets and throttled Vegas in six, going 7-2 on the road.


Led by center Phillip Danault’s line, Montreal silenced its opponents’ top scorers in every round: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner didn’t have a goal in Toronto’s final three defeats; Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Pierre Luc-Dubois managed just one for Winnipeg; and Vegas’s Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson combined for a grand total of none, as Max Pacioretty — the former Montreal captain — tallied one, in the third period of a Game 5 loss.


None of those teams, though, is as tough or as tested or as deep as the Lightning, which have reached at least the league’s semifinal round in five of the last seven seasons. Their third line, centered by Yanni Gourde, neutralized Montreal’s top group, and Brayden Point, who had three assists, thwarted rushes to feed Tampa Bay’s dynamic transition game. Price made save after dazzling save, ceding the first three goals on two deflections and a mishap by defenseman Ben Chiarot, but the Lightning kept surging and their own superb goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, kept saving.


Afterward, as the Canadiens lamented their poor play with the puck and their sloppiness without it, they were heartened by this reality: they faltered in Game 1 last round at Vegas, also in a frenzied atmosphere, and proceeded to win four of the next five. They think they can do it again. Let’s see if they’re right.


Stanley Cup Finals

Today

Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN/Peacock (Tampa Bay leads series 1-0)