MONTREAL — It was a Saint Jean Baptiste Day celebration like no other, with the Montreal Canadiens playing for the first time ever on Quebec’s cherished Fête Nationale and punctuating it by stamping their 34th ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.
Unique? How about unheard of.
This has been the year of the unexpected — for all of us, but most certainly for these Canadiens, who were given no chance against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 and even less of one in this semifinal against the Vegas Golden Knights. No team has had worse odds to make it this far in over 30 years, and it’s perfectly fitting this one defied them.
These Canadiens fought through in six games, overcoming this challenge like every other one they faced before it: ferociously and all together. And this series-clinching win was a microcosm of that, with Artturi Lehkonen scoring 1:39 into overtime to end Game 6 at 3-2 and send them back to the Final for the first time since 1993.
Prior to that, the Canadiens allowed two one-goal leads to slip away and fell back on their heels to end the third period.
They stayed there to start overtime, but were lifted off their toes to celebrate Lehkonen’s goal after Brendan Gallagher cut through the neutral zone and fed the puck to Phillip Danault, who slashed through the middle and found Lehkonen’s stick.
The 3,500 fans at the Bell Centre erupted, handshake lines were formed, and then Shea Weber skated over to accept the Clarence Campbell Bowl — he didn’t touch it — for the first time in over 100 years of Canadiens history.
Weird? No, just more of the same stuff this year’s been made of.
"We've been through a lot,” said the captain, who scored the opening goal — his first of the playoffs, a booming slap shot from the left point that made you almost forget he missed the final eight games of the season with a left-thumb injury.
The drama of the last six months could’ve filled a dozen soap operas.
This team started off on a tear and then played so badly it got its coach fired. This team came out of a break and then jumped into a pause when Joel Armia caught COVID-19. This team had to finish the season by playing 25 games in 44 nights, travelling across the country three times just to get it done. This team faced a salary-cap dilemma and a roster crunch that handcuffed its coach from dressing the optimal lineup when he desperately needed the flexibility post trade deadline. This team lost Weber, star goaltender Carey Price and every other key player to injury while a playoff spot hung in the balance. This team clinched with a loss in its second-to-last game of the season — one of 14 they endured over their final 21. This team was dead to rights down 3-1 to the Maple Leafs, shut out on home ice in what was expected to be their last game of the year at the Bell Centre. And this team left Vegas tied 1-1 in the series with the Golden Knights, returning to Montreal, where head coach Dominique Ducharme was diagnosed with COVID-19 and placed into quarantine for the remainder of this series — and possibly beyond.
This team prevailed.
“We wouldn’t be here right now if we didn’t believe,” said Price, who made 37 saves in Game 6. “We’ve always stuck with it.”
On Thursday, with a city’s worth of people flooding the streets outside the building and a few thousand more filling the seats within its walls, the Canadiens were the team who surrounded that Campbell Bowl for a picture and then left it right there on the table.
“Obviously there’s a bigger one out there that we’re chasing,” said Cole Caufield, whose goal in the second period featured every element of what will make him a special player for years to come.
The 20-year-old rookie pushed a stretch pass over Brayden McNabb’s stick in the neutral zone, double-clutched from second gear to fourth and ripped his wrist shot over Robin Lehner’s glove and under the bar of the Vegas net to make it 2-1 Canadiens 9:36 into the second period. It was the fourth goal of the series for the kid who started the playoffs watching the first two games from the Toronto press box.
After Lehkonen sealed the deal, Lehner shared his appreciation for the Canadiens’ determination.
“Hell of a team,” Lehner said. “Works really hard. Sticks with their structure, and they have a lot of great players. Everyone underestimates them. Good for them.”
All of them.
You don’t get through everything the Canadiens have been through and pull off something entirely unexpected without every single person doing what’s expected of them — and some doing even more.
"It's really fun to see the guys enjoying themselves in the dressing room,” said Ducharme’s stand-in, assistant coach Luke Richardson. “They deserve it. It's really heartwarming to see a group of guys that work that hard together. I know every team is the same, it says the same thing, but these guys are a special group and a really good mix. It's hard to put into words how proud we are of them, but they deserve it, and they're not done yet.
“I saw a fire in their eyes. They're already talking about it. We are shifting our focus right away. We'll probably step away (Friday) and just take some rest and come back on Saturday and do a little work and Sunday, get right back at it. And we're looking forward to the challenge.”