TAMPA, Fla. — This is pain. The deep-cutting, searing kind that leaves scars. Scars that will never heal.
But that’s not all the Montreal Canadiens are left with after this fabled run through the playoffs left them three wins away from lifting their 25th Stanley Cup. It may feel like it’s all they’ve got on this night, with the Tampa Bay Lightning — back-to-back champions — celebrating across from them after a 1-0 win in Game 5, but this group still gained something in all of this.
The Canadiens were the 18th-ranked team in the NHL. A group their coach, Dominique Ducharme, said the rest of the world took for idiots for believing in themselves before stamping their ticket as last entrant into the playoffs. They weren’t David to Goliath; they were David’s scrawny kid brother — the longest of longshots to go anywhere, let alone to the Final.
But the Canadiens defied the odds and played their hearts out.
“They bled, they fought, they never quit,” said Ducharme after revealing captain Shea Weber played all 22 games with a busted thumb, that Jeff Petry played the final two series with damaged fingers, that Tyler Toffoli sustained a groin injury and that Brendan Gallagher also had one, “and more.”
Several more Canadiens played banged up and played all out to lift Montreal out of its darkest hour. From down 3-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs and left for dead in Round 1, to trouncing the Winnipeg Jets in a sweep before conquering a juggernaut Vegas Golden Knights team and, ultimately, succumbing to a truly special Lightning team, they united a city forced into division by the pandemic. They brought everyone out to the streets in celebration, until all hours of the night, after they were all under lock and key for months on end.
This result will be something the Canadiens want to forget, but the process they underwent created memories that will last a lifetime.
But that’s not all.
This run may have given birth to a future champion — especially when you consider who helped drive it. There was 21-year-old Nick Suzuki right at the helm, leading the Canadiens in goals (seven) and points (16) in the playoffs for the second time in his two-year career.
Cole Caufield, 20, rode shotgun on his line and came up with four goals and 12 points in his first 20 playoff games. His professional career is months old, with 32 games between the AHL and NHL regular seasons and these playoffs under his belt.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi may have three seasons and two playoff runs under his belt, but he just turned 21 on Tuesday. He may have sat out the first game against Toronto and the last two against Tampa, but he’s gained the type of experience players 10 years older than him haven’t.
Even the sparingly used Alex Romanov grew by leaps and bounds. The 21-year-old’s first year in this league will only help him fulfill his promise as a future top-pairing defenceman.
Suzuki, Caufield, Kotkaniemi and 24-year-old centre Jake Evans flew under the wings of triple gold members Corey Perry and Eric Staal. They all grew together, suffered this heartache together and must take something out of it together.
“From every tough playoff loss I’ve had, I felt like I’ve learned something,” said an inconsolable Gallagher. “We have a lot of young guys who are going to be a key part of this team moving forward, and as painful as this is right now, sometimes you need to feel this to be able to call yourself a champion. I wish it wasn’t the case, but maybe this is the journey we needed. It stings for sure, but you take more from a loss than you do from a win. And if we’re able to learn from this experience, maybe the positive is that we can be better off.
“Right now, I don’t know what to tell you. It stings.”
There’s no turning away from that part of it.
The 35-year-old Weber had never been past the second round of the playoffs before captaining the Canadiens to this Final. Perry and Staal, who consistently reinforced to their teammates how rare and special opportunities to play in the playoffs are, may never come this close again to earning another Cup.
They’re 36, without contracts for next season, and each of them are well over 10 years removed from their last championship.
Carey Price is three years younger and 14 years into a career that’s seen him win everything but a Cup. The superstar goaltender came into the playoffs having missed the final 13 games of the regular season with a concussion, and he turned in miracles to get the Canadiens into position to play the Lightning.
They proved formidable through the first games, making Price look fallible when they’d have made any of the great goaltenders in history look foolish, and he couldn’t shake the idea that he had somehow cost the Canadiens this opportunity because of it.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think I played well enough at the start of the series,” Price said before Weber interjected.
“I don’t think that’s the case at all, to be honest,” Weber said. “I think that we weren’t good enough in front of Carey. And give them credit, they’re a heck of a team. They’re here for a reason and they were better than us.”
This Lightning team was better than everyone, with Nikita Kucherov breaking the 30-point barrier for the second consecutive playoffs and Andrei Vasilevskiy capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy after earning a 22-save shutout that brought his save percentage to an eye-popping .937 and his goals-against average to a ridiculous 1.91.
Look at everyone in between, the scoring they got up and down and the incredible defensive commitment they supported it with.
The Lighting were virtually unbeatable, and it earned its designation as a special team.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Steven Stamkos. “I mean, so cliché to say, but there’s no words. For this group to go back-to-back after everything we went through last year in the bubble… to go through this year, ups and downs… I mean, it’s amazing.”
And as Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, they’ll be hard-pressed to do it again.
Ross Colton, who scored the winner 13:27 into the second period, will be among the many Lightning players to return. But this team, which used long-term injury reserve to ice the NHL’s most talented roster, knows it will be significantly altered come next October.
As for the Canadiens, the pieces around the core will shift, but they’re young and blossoming and so much better off for what they just went through together. And even if that’s tough to keep in perspective at this moment, it will come into focus with every day that passes.
For now, there’s pain.
“I take nothing out of moral victories,” said Gallagher. “Start of the year, we sat down as a group, our goal was to be here. We expected to be here regardless of what people thought of our team. The expectations were to win this series. I know we probably surprised a lot of people, but our expectations were to be the team celebrating right now. And that's why it hurts so much.
“I told you guys all the time how much we believed. I wasn't lying. We believed in this group. It's just a tough pill to swallow.”