On Wednesday, there were two scores that profoundly affected Canadians.
One was 4-1.
The other was 57-20.
The first was in a packed hockey rink in Las Vegas, where the visiting Montreal Canadiens dominated the game and won handily 4-1. The victory gave the last-standing Canadian team a three-games-to-two lead in the semi-finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That left the Canadiens one win away from reaching the Cup final, something no Canadian team has done since 2011. No Canadian team has won the trophy dedicated to the “champion hockey team in the Dominion” since 1993, when an earlier version of the Canadiens was triumphant.
Pretty impressive for a team that was a 50-to-1 longshot when the 2021 playoffs began.
The other score was on a Zoom call held far to the north and east, when the Canadian Senate approved Bill C-218, a private member’s bill that makes betting on single games of hockey, football, baseball and other sports legal. The legislation will become law once royal assent is given, which is a mere formality.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that practically every second ad on the broadcast of the hockey game was for jackpotcity.ca, an online casino where visitors can play slots and poker and other games for free. Training wheels, it might be said, for the many who will move on to betting real money once Bill C-218 becomes law.
Had it all been legal back on May 25, when the Toronto Maple Leafs whipped the Canadiens 4-0 to take a three-games-to-one stranglehold on their opening round series, one can only wonder how many, if any, would have bet on Montreal to continue on?
That the Canadiens would then sweep the Winnipeg Jets and now be one win away from defeating the Vegas Golden Knights might suggest the fix was in … yet we all know it couldn’t have been, not from what those watching have witnessed for themselves.
Despite being the lowest seed in what was said to be the weakest division, the Canadian division, these Canadiens have regularly shut down the stars of the other side – none so dramatically as Golden Knights captain Mark Stone, who has zero goals and zero assists so far in this series.
Despite losing interim head coach Dominique Ducharme to a positive COVID-19 test, the Canadiens have played even better under interim-interim head coach Luke Richardson.
Despite having a so-so regular season – perhaps in pandemic 2021 it should be referred to as “irregular season” – goaltender Carey Price has returned to the playoff form that has often had him described as the best goaltender on the planet.
Despite injuries to key players such as Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry, the Canadiens have evolved into a four-line team in which each unit has complete trust in the other.
As Richardson said Wednesday in his Zoom presser, he wants his players to “become a machine.” And they have.
“It goes back to training camp,” Richardson said, “when Marc Bergevin said this team was built for the playoffs.”
General manager Bergevin was regularly criticized over the season for moves made and moves not made, but the coaches and players believed in what he saw. Bergevin, Richardson said, was “a passionate guy, a passionate player – and he’s still passionate as a GM. He wears his heart on his sleeve and the players see that. They want to play for him.”
Richardson marvels at the role team elders have played. He talks about how vocal 36-year-old Eric Staal is on the bench and viewers are only too familiar with how vocal 36-year-old Corey Perry can be on the ice.
There are times, the coach said, where he and his assistants just stand back and marvel – “Not that we’re trying to be lazy.”
The players are acutely aware that they were given precious little chance at the outset, no chance against the Leafs, little hope against the Jets and none again against the Golden Knights.
“I don’t think we really care too much about what everyone thinks about our team,” forward Joel Armia said Wednesday. “We can win games.”
“We’re in a great spot right now,” added defenceman Erik Gustafsson.
They are indeed, as the Canadiens prepare for Thursday’s Game 6 back in Montreal. Should they lose that, however, they would just be in a spot – with a one-game showdown Saturday night back in Las Vegas to decide who goes to the final.
First, however, there is Thursday’s match which has the Montreal advantage of being back home, where the team’s success has set the city afire with excitement. Some 3,500 fans will be allowed into the Bell Centre, a far cry from the 18,000 or so packed into T-Mobile Arena for Golden Knights’ games, but they may well be as loud.
After all, Thursday is June 24, St. Jean Baptiste Day, Quebec’s most-celebrated holiday.
“What a festival that would be,” Richardson said.
Bet on it.