TORONTO — All was not lost.
Just a hockey game and a series, both of which were there for the taking for the Montreal Canadiens.
They came to Toronto as the 24th-ranked team in a 24-team tournament for the Stanley Cup. They knocked off a championship-caliber Pittsburgh Penguins team in four games in the qualifying round. And they gave the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers everything they could handle in a hard-fought, 3-2 Game 6 loss — and for the five games that preceded it — and now they’re leaving the bubble having taken a considerable step forward in the reset they embarked on in the summer of 2018.
In the process the Canadiens shocked the hockey world, their opponents, and one former teammate in particular — a veteran of 72 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
“I’m not going to lie, that was one of the hardest series I’ve ever played in,” said 35-year-old Nate Thompson, who was traded from the Canadiens to the Flyers at the Feb. 24 deadline. “They were fast, they were good defensively, and then you have Carey back there. They are the real deal, I think. That was the best hockey I’ve ever seen them play. They took their game to the next level. It was impressive. It was very impressive.”
Price had stopped 250 of 265 shots he faced for a .944 save percentage and a 1.64 goals-against average before he was beat by three shots that banked off bodies in front of him in Friday’s game. And Shea Weber, the team’s oldest player and its captain, averaged over 25 minutes per game, had three goals and five points, and was a human eraser on defence.
Both of Montreal’s leaders played as well as they ever have in the important games that have defined their Hall-of-Fame-worthy careers. What a heartbreaking outcome this had to be for them, particularly in a game the Canadiens dominated from start to finish.
They out-shot the Flyers, 33-17, out-chanced them, 22-11, and they put up an effort Brendan Gallagher — their heart-and-soul player whose series came to an end in Game 5 after receiving a Matt Niskanen cross-check that knocked out some of his teeth and broke his jaw — would’ve been proud of.
Surely the 33-year-old Price and the 35-year-old Weber recognized the signs of growth in this Canadiens team. The ones that can allow them to believe that they might soon contend while they’re still capable of playing at the level they offered in these playoffs.
“Everybody doubted us as soon as they announced what the playoff format would be. Everyone kind of just axed us off like we weren’t gonna be here,” Weber said afterward. “Everybody showed up … I think it just shows that maybe we’re closer than people think.”
“I feel the same way,” Price said. “A lot of guys stepped up to the plate and played very well in a tough situation against two very good teams. Very proud of those kids for playing the way they did.”
Montreal’s two youngest players, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, established themselves as stars in the making. They finished as the team’s leading goal scorers, with Suzuki scoring two in this devastating loss to tie Kotkaniemi with four goals in the playoffs.
For Kotkaniemi, the 20-year-old taken third overall in the 2018 draft, it was complete redemption from a disastrous and injury-plagued sophomore season that saw him score just six goals and eight points in 36 games before he was demoted to the American Hockey League in January.
“That was the best I’ve ever seen KK play, the best I’ve ever seen Suzuki play,” Thompson said.
It was also a step forward for 22-year-old Victor Mete, who gained precious experience and got better with every game. And one for Jake Evans, who was drafted 207th overall in 2014.
How can you not be impressed with 25-year-old Jonathan Drouin’s performance? He delivered his best hockey in his three years in a Canadiens uniform in notching two assists in each elimination game against the Flyers, and he finished tied with Suzuki for the team lead in points (7).
But this unexpected run of bubble hockey, in an August exhibition that was borne of a global pandemic, wasn’t about just four or five players.
“It was a group effort,” said interim head coach Kirk Muller, who stepped in for an ailing Claude Julien following Game 1 of this series. “We had a lot of good looks. The young kids — how they’ve progressed through this whole experience and the veteran guys showing how much they love this group and how much they want to lead [is the biggest positive]. So, the combination of how they gelled together, but it’s how hard they played [that impressed the most]. They played the right way, and I’m really proud of this group in what they accomplished.”
They weren’t perfect.
The Canadiens failed to score goals in two of six games in this series, and not everyone played at the height of their abilities.
Hard questions will be asked of players who never got their engines rolling. Players like Tomas Tatar and Max Domi, who were offensive leaders for the Canadiens over the past two regular seasons but nowhere near the top in these playoffs. Even Gallagher, who scored 86 goals over the last three seasons, managed only one goal prior to his injury.
But it wasn’t for lack of want or effort, and neither was Friday’s loss to a Flyers team that hadn’t dropped consecutive games since January.
And you can’t even undersell the effort of the team despite its utterly disappointing results from October to March. Sure, the Canadiens floundered, but they tried. And it’s clear now, in hindsight, they took something from that, too.
“We play in a tough market, and a passionate market, and unless you experience it and see what it’s like to play as a player in those types of markets — as far as every day grinding through — it pushes you as a player because the fans love the team and they’re so passionate,” Muller said. “You go through some periods of that and the losses and that, it’s tough.
“But then you come here and you put it together and you start winning and everyone gels together and they got a taste of it,” he added. “And that’s the fun part with this group is they’ve gotten some ups and downs, but because of it they’re going to take this and go, ‘Wow, we can move forward.’ And that little taste of that little success they had here — I think they’re going to grow and build with it.”
That has great value for one of the youngest teams in the NHL.
Just the way the Canadiens played has inherent value as well.
“We didn’t give up much defensively, and that’s always a good sign,” Muller said. “You look at a lot of teams that are playing right now — they’re good and strong teams without the puck. So that’s … the identity of this team. But we’re also capable of scoring goals. So if you play the right way and you defend well, then you can score goals; that’s a nice combination. Especially when you get the goaltending like Carey Price in there and what he brings to this team. You’ve got experienced veteran leaders, you’ve got young guys to build with, you’ve got a team that played the right way. When you put all those things together, it’s nice pieces.”
There are more coming. The Canadiens have one of the top prospect pools in hockey and 14 picks, including the 16th overall, in the upcoming draft. They also are among the best positioned teams to deal with a flat or decreasing salary cap, with plenty of space to add some much-needed premiere talent through free agency or trade.
That’s something to get excited about, as is what they gained over these past three weeks.