The Washington Capitals finished 33 points ahead of the Canadiens in the regular-season standings, meaning that if Montreal knocks them off in the deciding game of their best-of-seven playoff series Wednesday night, it will go down in history as one of the greatest upsets of all time.
The anatomy of a possible upset always intrigues me. My first year as a hockey writer, I had a chance to witness one of the most shocking of all time. It involved Montreal, but the shoe was on the other foot this time. It was the spring of 1981, in the 21-team NHL and the days of the balanced schedule, when the playoff format made no distinction about conferences or geography. Hence, Montreal - with the third best record overall and 103 regular-season points - drew the 14th-seeded Edmonton Oilers, fourth-place finishers in the Smythe Division with 74 points. This was Edmonton's second year in the NHL; the previous year, they'd sneaked in as a 16th seed and were summarily dismissed by the Philadelphia Flyers in three straight (although two games went to overtime).
Even with the makings of a future dynasty team, there was no good reason to think the Oilers were capable of knocking off Montreal that year, not with the Canadiens' illustrious history and the fact that they still had many of the key elements of the squad that won consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1976 to 1979.
But the Oilers had a young Wayne Gretzky and a young Mark Messier and a nothing-to-lose attitude. Andy Moog played goal for them; Brett Callighen and a Finnish rookie named Jari Kurri were Gretzky's wingers; and in the end, the series wasn't even close. The Oilers swept the first two games in Montreal and then closed out the best-of-five series with a convincing 6-2 romp at home.
Order appeared to have been restored in the next round when the defending champion New York Islanders crushed them on home ice 8-2 and 6-3, but the Oilers refused to wilt and won twice more before finally losing the series in six games.
They appeared to be on their way - a young team, memorably singing on the bench in the Islanders' series, enjoying the moment, feeling no pressure whatsoever. It probably shouldn't have come as too much of a shock therefore that the next year, after Edmonton soared to 111 points in the regular-season standings, that they were themselves the victims of a similar upset.
This was the Miracle on Manchester year, 1982, when expectations were far higher, a critical factor in a 63-point Los Angeles Kings team knocking them off in the fifth and deciding game. L.A. won one the opener 10-8; another game 6-5 (after rallying from a five-goal deficit) and then took the clincher 7-4 at Northlands. The Oilers were badly rattled by then; it was Mario Lessard outplaying (sort of) Grant Fuhr in goal that season in a five-game series that saw 50 goals scored altogether. That 48-point regular-season gap in the standings between the teams didn't seem nearly so great, when the pressure ramped up in the deciding game and the young Oilers had no answer for the Kings.
So this then is the object lesson for the 2010 Canadiens, heading into Wednesday's deciding game against Washington. It can be done because it has been done. This year's Capitals bearing a striking resemblance to the emerging Oilers of 1982 and the history of young teams facing high expectations is that they can get rattled, especially if your goaltender happens to be doing a convincing imitation of Georges Vezina between the pipes.
Right now, it looks as if the difference makers in Washington - particularly Mike Green and Alexander Semin - are squeezing their sticks far more than they were in a regular season, where they breezed to the division title and the President's Trophy. One game, everything on the line. It doesn't get much better than this, does it?