MONTREAL – They not only beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in four straight games, breezing through a seven-day stretch that is bound to send expectations soaring. The Montreal Canadiens also proved something to themselves here.
"I thought we did a really good job not getting lost," veteran forward Daniel Briere said after a dramatic 4-3 series-clinching victory on Tuesday. "We stayed in our bubble. It’s not easy here in Montreal, with a lot of coverage (and being) the only team in Canada still alive.
"We did a really good job taking care of business and doing what we had to do in this series."
Ole, ole, ole.
The Habs were serenaded into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by a delirious Bell Centre crowd left giddy by the team’s first series sweep since 1993. That’s a spring that conjures good memories in these parts – it delivered the last of 24 championships – and this one is suddenly looking up following the quick dispatch of the Lightning.
It didn’t come as easy as it might have after Montreal squandered a two-goal lead in the third period. But coach Michel Therrien managed to calm his bench with a timeout and Max Pacioretty delivered the winner with 42.6 seconds to play in regulation after Tampa rookie Cedric Paquette was assessed a controversial tripping penalty.
"I didn’t see the penalty, but as soon as I heard it I knew this was my chance," Pacioretty said.
His timing was impeccable. Montreal scored 16 goals in this series but it wasn’t until the last one that Pacioretty, a 39-goal man in the regular season, finally found the back of the net himself. That relatively short amount of time had seemed like an eternity.
"The only thing keeping me sane was the team winning and other people stepping up and scoring," Pacioretty said. "(When you) realize you can end the series with one shot, that frustration goes away for a brief moment and that’s what happened."
Even in a series won in just four games, there was plenty of opportunity for the Habs to show cracks. None came to the surface. Head coach Michel Therrien was so relaxed that he might as well have been holding a tumbler of scotch and a newspaper in his hand for most of the series.
After studying tape of the Lightning, Therrien determined that the best way to handle their speed was to be aggressive and counteract it. The gameplan came off perfectly. A Tampa team that was the youngest in the Stanley Cup tournament – 12 players made their playoff debuts in this series – struggled to get the puck through the neutral zone from start to finish and committed too many costly turnovers to count.
The Lightning were also undone by the goaltending of Anders Lindback, who was a sizeable step down from injured starter Ben Bishop. Lindback ended up getting pulled 25 minutes into game four for Latvian rookie Kristers Gudlevskis after looking shaky on two of the three goals he allowed.
"We knew that shooting just above his pad, one foot off the ice, was a good spot to shoot," said Lars Eller, who scored in just that fashion.
There’s an undeniable mojo to this Montreal team. This was the first series victory for Carey Price since his 2008 rookie season and he didn’t even need to be the star of the show. Scoring came from all four lines, P.K. Subban was solid (if not understated) and the overall commitment to team defence was a major plus.
A touch of luck and better health than Tampa helped, too.
"The team believes in the way we play, so we start games with the intention of winning," Therrien said. "If you look at all the games in the playoffs, it was always us that dictated the play. We were the more aggressive team in terms of scoring chances and shots."
It also showed on the scoreboard, where Tampa led for a grand total of three minutes 34 seconds in the series. That was all in game one. When everything was said and done, the Habs outscored the Lightning 16-10 and outshot them 138-104.
The road will almost certainly get tougher from here.
Montreal could end up with as many as 10 days off while awaiting the winner of the Boston-Detroit series, which is currently being led 2-1 by the Bruins. On the bright side, that will provide added time for Alex Galchenyuk (knee) and Travis Moen (concussion) to recover from injuries and offer Therrien plenty of opportunity to scout and gameplan for a new opponent.
On the down side, the players will have to work hard to maintain the insulated bubble that Briere thought was so important to an impressive opening round performance.
There is already some myth-making starting to take hold in the spiritual home of hockey. Iconic Quebec singer Ginette Reno gave another stirring rendition of "O Canada" prior to the game and shook Briere’s hand as she walked off.
Wouldn’t you know, moments later Briere went on to open the scoring 2:24 into the game, prompting many on Twitter to comment on Reno’s magical touch. The anthem singer had already been splashed across the front page of Tuesday’s Journal de Montreal and is now drawing comparisons to Kate Smith, who was thought to be a good luck charm for the mid-70’s Philadelphia Flyers.
You should expect to see Reno back front and centre when the Bell Centre hosts its next playoff game.
"It was so loud," Briere said. "I mean everybody was pumped up in the building, (including) us on the bench. I guess she gave me a little bit of energy when she walked off the ice and shook my hand. It worked on the first shift.
"Maybe we can get a little seat for her right by the bench. She can touch all the guys."
Yes, the Habs playoff dreams are alive and well. Keeping their skates firmly planted on the ice could be its own challenge.