MONTREAL — It was Denis Coderre, the colourful mayor of Montreal, who best captured the mood of his city.
The night before a must-win Game 5 against Tampa Bay he tweeted out a caricature of himself, draped in La sainte flannelle, praying to Jean Beliveau for a series comeback that would be unlike any in the 106-year history of the Canadiens.
From prayer, to belief.
That’s a feeling many in the fanbase should have when they head to church on Sunday morning. Not only did the Habs extend their season with a nervy 2-1 victory in Game 5, but they also showed that they can go stride-for-stride with the Lightning.
In fact, it was the third straight game where they outplayed their opponent.
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“When we got down 3-0 (in the series), we were in the locker-room all down,” said winger P-A Parenteau. “We had a team meeting right away after and we told each other that the way the game went that we really believed in ourselves. Sometimes you’re down 3-0 in a series and you know it’s over.
“It wasn’t the case this time around: We know we have a chance.”
That’s about all they could ask for given where they were three days ago. This is already the first Montreal team in history to reach a Game 6 after digging a 3-0 hole, but that won’t satisfy anyone if it is unable to win Tuesday night in Tampa to set up a Game 7 as well.
Another performance at this level should give them a fighting chance.
The Habs played aggressively all night and forced turnovers. They dictated the pace for stretches of the game and beat Ben Bishop with two well placed shots — Parenteau and Devante Smith-Pelly each got their first goals of the playoffs — while getting some expected heroics from Carey Price.
“We’re being assertive, we’re getting open, we’re hungry,” said defenceman P.K. Subban. “It’s tough. When you’re up 3-0 and you don’t close it out the first time, you don’t close it out the second time, mentally it can eat away at you.”
That is the exact position Montreal found itself in against Ottawa in the first round. Despite two hiccups, the Habs managed to end that series in Game 6.
If anything, it should be a reminder that Tampa is still very much in control of this best-of-seven. The Lightning players viewed Saturday’s game as an incomplete effort — captain Steven Stamkos called the first two periods “iffy” — but hope they laid the foundation for something better in the final 20 minutes.
“With the skill that we have, and if we stay disciplined with our structure, we can be the better team,” said Stamkos. “I know we didn’t get the result in the third but if we stick with the process we’re going to get it.
“This one sucks, but I think we do have something to build on.”
The wild-card in all of this is Price, who added to his aura with a ridiculous stop on Valtteri Filppula in the third period. He extended his glove impossibly far, lunging twice, to get enough webbing on the puck to keep it out.
Even after Stamkos tied it 1-1 on a rebound shortly after, the Canadiens stuck to their game.
It was a dazzling move by Subban at the blue-line, where he beat Alex Killorn and sent the puck into the middle with Stamkos stepping up on him, that set up Parenteau’s winner with 4:07 to play in regulation.
And so they play on.
The Habs have outshot Tampa in all five games this series — they’re ahead 173-127 on aggregate — and are vying to become just the fifth team in NHL history to erase a 3-0 deficit.
“I think we’ve outplayed them,” said Subban.
All of the focus during a two-day break will be on finding a way to get back to the Bell Centre for what would be a wild Game 7.
With Beliveau’s widow, Elise, sitting in her husband’s former seat, the old building was absolutely bouncing on Saturday.
“There was so many emotions,” said winger Max Pacioretty. “I just told someone my whole body’s tingling right now. It’s like up, down, we win, then the scrum at the end and you get a little heated. It’s so much fun.
“We’ve got to find a way to play like that next game.”
Within the context of a series, there is usually very little carryover from one game to the next. Each is like a snowflake with its own set of circumstances and emotions and turning points.
But the Habs will fly south feeling confident after discovering a swagger that seemed to be missing when the playoffs began.
“The players believe,” said coach Michel Therrien. “When you have a group of players that believe, you never know what can happen.”