Well before he pulled on the sweater, Eric Staal already had a good grasp of what this all means.
Way back in 2006 — the first and only other time Staal has enjoyed a playoff run this long — the budding star and his Carolina Hurricanes strode into Bell Centre and knocked off the home team, the first step in a stunning journey toward silver and champagne.
From both an enemy’s and a Canadian’s point of view, Staal was all too familiar with the deafening passion that binds the city of Montreal to its hockey team. Not much surprises a player 17 years and 1,293 games deep in the league.
Yet ever since Staal was dealt back to his home country, escaping Buffalo at the deadline, all the closet Habs supporters in his circle have been coming out of the woodwork.
"For me now, being a Canadien, it’s now hearing from so many people that maybe I didn’t realize were massive Montreal Canadiens fans," Staal said Canada Day morning, before hopping on the charter.
"There’s so many people around Canada that follow this team and follow this organization — and it’s very special. I know my dad and my mom and my family have been getting a lot of messages from a lot of people that are following closely and supporting us and me. So, it’s been fun."
Less fun? The results in Tampa Bay, where Lightning coach Jon Cooper leveraged last change, Blake Coleman wielded a magic wand instead of a hockey stick, and Andrei Vasilevskiy outduelled Carey Price something severe.
Staal echoes the chorus that Montreal "deserved a better fate" in Wednesday’s 3-1 Game 2 loss. The Habs outshot the defending champs 43-23 and generated 62.6 per cent of the expected goals. But the Lightning scored 75 per cent of the actual goals.
Like punishment, hockey can be cruel and unusual.
Strange will be the scene Friday at the first Canada-hosted Stanley Cup Final game in more than a decade and the first in Montreal in more than 28 years.
Despite a pitch from Canadiens executive VP and chief commercial officer France Margaret Bélanger to increase capacity to 50 per cent (10,500) for Games 3 and 4, Quebec public health authorities will limit attendance to 3,500.
"Bell Centre is always loud." Canadien-turned-Lightning defenceman Mikhail Sergachev said. "Doesn’t matter how many fans they got there."
Added young star Cole Caufield, who won world junior gold just six months ago: "This is a stage like no other. You can’t really compare this to anything.
“They’ll still be loud and proud to be in there, so we’re really excited to get back home and play in front of our fans.”
All that unseated anxiety and hope will be pushed to the streets. Fans will flood oversized screens outdoors, just as they did when the Canadiens punched their ticket against Vegas last week.
"Unfortunately, I think there’ll be a lot more people outside of the building than inside, which will be a little bit different, but we know that they’re there. We know that the support is there. And we know that everybody is as excited as we are to be in this position — in the final," said Staal, viewing the emergence of head coach Dominique Ducharme from quarantine and home ice as a double jolt.
"We’ll use all that we can to have the energy to get the W."
Staal thought back to his Caufield-esque contributions to that defence-first 2006 Hurricanes squad, how favoured Carolina leapt to a 2-0 lead in the final only to see the scrappy Oilers drag it out for five more games.
"The series is still a long way from being over. Clearly, I remember that being on the other side," Staal said. "Back in ’06, it got all the way to Game 7 — and anybody knows anything can happen in Game 7."
Canadiens assistant coach Alex Burrows knows too well.
Burrows is the club’s link to the last Canadian franchise to make it this far.
Following Wednesday’s hard-luck loss, Burrows walked into the coach’s room and reminded Luke Richardson that the Vancouver Canucks were up 2-0 to the Boston Bruins in 2011… and we all know how that ended.
"You gotta be careful you don’t get overconfident, because they ended up losing that series," Richardson said. "So, we got to keep that in mind."
The Canadiens, led by Price and Shea Weber, will draw upon history and legacy and gold-medal spotlights, sure. But more so their recent rallying from 1-3 to stun Toronto in Round 1 and 0-1 to upset Vegas in the semis.
These are the stories competitors tell themselves standing in the shadows of a mountain.
Montreal must now win four of five games to steal the belt.
The last time the 2021 Lightning lost four of five games is no they haven’t.
The series now pits Knowing You Can versus Belief That You Can.
Starting Friday, Belief owns home ice.
"There’s a determination. And you’re right, I think we can pull from some confidence from being down in series before and being confident in our style of play and just be a little bit more determined to finish," Richardson said.
"Maybe score that first goal, play with the lead in the series, and see where it takes us."