Canadiens earning respect with unified effort during special playoff run

Tyler Toffoli scored in the opening minutes of overtime as the Montreal Canadiens beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-2 to complete a sweep of the series.

MONTREAL — All hail the Kings of the North — the Montreal Canadiens, Demoralizers of Maple Leafs, Sweepers and Grounders of Jets.

No, seriously. If this team hasn’t earned your respect by coming back and beating a Toronto team that finished 18 points ahead of it in the standings and then obliterating a Winnipeg team that dispatched Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers in four games, that’s your problem. We’ll give them their due.

They’re not the most skilled of the teams remaining in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not even by a long shot.

But they just might be the most unified, and that’s what gets it done at this time of year.

The Canadiens are moving on to the Stanley Cup semifinals for the first time in seven years. They’re doing so on a seven-game winning streak, as a team that hasn’t trailed in 4:37:53 of game time. They’re just over 50 minutes away from tying an NHL record, set by the 1960 Canadiens, who swept the Maple Leafs to win it all.

And yet, they will be talked about like lambs awaiting the slaughter against whoever emerges from the battle between the NHL’s two best teams from this regular season.

Not by us, though.

You may underestimate these Canadiens at your own peril.

“It kind of feels like nobody believes in us,” said Tyler Toffoli, who scored at 1:39 of overtime to secure the 3-2 win in Game 4 and the sweep over the Jets. “The only people we have are ourselves and our fans, which clearly with the small amount of fans in the building, it sounded a lot more than what it was, are behind us and our friends and family. We’re sticking together. We’re playing as one and we’re winning games and having fun.”

Phillip Danault, who blanketed Toronto and Winnipeg’s best players in these playoffs, called it the best time of he and his teammates’ lives as he chomped on some celebratory pizza.

Danault was born just months before the Canadiens last were crowned Stanley Cup champions. The 28-year-old Victoriaville, Que., native contemplated what it would be like to end the Cup drought with this edition.

Who can blame him for even going there?

“I’ve been dreaming about bringing it back to Montreal one day,” Danault said. “I think this is our chance this year. We’ve been playing well. We’ve just got to go one step at a time and not look too far and just enjoy the process and have fun.”

Fun is pushing these Jets to the brink, and then out-shooting them 42-16 and coming through with three goals to secure the series.

Erik Gustafsson gave the Canadiens a lead on the power play 8:01 into the first period of Monday’s game. It was the ninth time in 11 games this team had secured the first goal in this post-season.

Artturi Lehkonen, who came back from a concussion to replace Jake Evans, who was concussed in Game 1 on a charge that eliminated Jets top centre Mark Scheifele from this series, scored for a second consecutive game to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead with 51 seconds remaining in the first period.

Carey Price may have blinked for the first time in these playoffs by allowing two goals to Logan Stanley in the second period, but by pushing through and winning in overtime, the Canadiens showed how this team — unlike almost every one that’s played in front of Price since he was drafted by the organization in 2005 — is about so much more than its goaltender.

“These guys are playing as well as any team has ever played,” he said.

They’re certainly playing better than any he’s been behind since 2014, when the Canadiens last made it to the semifinals and were undone with New York Rangers winger Chris Kreider crashing skates up into Price and knocking him out of the playoffs.

The 33-year-old, who has a .935 save percentage through 11 games, hasn’t been given a chance to come anywhere near this far since and he has treated this one like he may not get another.

“I said that at the start of the year,” Price said, “every opportunity you get is a golden one.”

This group so clearly understands that.

It’s a team bolstered by the Cup-winning experience of Corey Perry, Eric Staal, Joel Edmundson, Jake Allen and Toffoli, and one completely energized by players under the age of 22, like Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield.

It was 21-year-old Alexander Romanov who jumped into Game 4 cold after playing 54 of 56 regular-season games and watching the first 10 playoff games in a suit. Without Jeff Petry (who was injured in Game 3), in a back-to-back situation, they benefited from his jump — even if he played only 9:27.

Others, like Ben Chiarot, Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron and Josh Anderson, have led the way for the Canadiens with their tenacity and intensity. Bit players, like Gustafsson, Brett Kulak and Joel Armia, have delivered much more than expected of them.

And then there’s 35-year-old Shea Weber, the captain, who missed the final eight games of the season with a thumb injury. He couldn’t hold a stick with his left hand in the lead up to the Toronto series, but he’s since played the third-most minutes per game of anyone still left in the playoffs.

He had a word for why the Canadiens should be respected.

“There’s such a great group of guys in there,” Weber said. “That translates on the ice. Everyone does their job and has a specific job that they’re supposed to do on the ice. And that’s part of it, too. But I think that everyone plays for each other and does the right thing for their teammates.”

Isn’t that what this is about?

It has to continue to be when the Canadiens resume play. No matter who they’re up against.

“It’s going to be a helluva job,” said coach Dominique Ducharme, who took over from Claude Julien on Feb. 24 and must now prepare his team to play an opponent they haven’t faced all year.

“We played the teams we beat nine or 10 times, but it’s good to measure ourselves against the best,” Ducharme continued. “(The Avalanche and Golden Knights) finished first and second in the league, (respectively), but our objective isn’t to finish here. So, if we want to get to where we want to get to, we have to beat the best teams.”

And this isn’t about matching up with the improbable Cup-winning Canadiens teams of the past. It’s got nothing to do with 1993 or 1986.

“Every year is different,” said Ducharme. “You look back at those guys, it’s special, but yeah, there’s something special in our group, and we said it that it was a good group.

“Now, can we write our own story? That’s what we want to do.”

Two chapters are already in ink, and one crown has already been earned.

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