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Montreal Canadiens fans cheer on their team outside the Bell Centre in Montreal on July 2, 2021, prior to Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

As the Montreal Canadiens lined up for the opening faceoff to their first Stanley Cup final home game in 28 years, the loudest Go Habs Go chant heard in a year erupted across their arena.

The Bell Centre is unrecognizable without its common pandemonium and 21,000 filled seats. Yet, each of the 3,500 Canadiens fans admitted into the building on Friday night, armed with swinging towels and rested voices, seemed to make enough noise for six people. Mostly young and wearing red, they spread across the arena and embodied the emotion that people of Montreal associate with a Canadiens’ Stanley Cup final, a concept many current fans only grasp by looking at old pictures.

Their enthusiastic cheers, however, lost sound and frequency when the defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning jumped to a three-goal lead early in the second period, en route to a 6-3 victory and a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Canadiens now face the daunting task of winning four straight games – only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs have ever come back from such a deficit in the final round.

The loss dampened the cheery mood in Montreal, a city whose fans have been packing restaurants and brandishing construction cones like orange Stanley Cups, occasionally forcing police officers to disperse rowdy crowds outside the Bell Centre following playoff wins.

Fandom for the bleu, blanc et rouge is very much alive and runs deep. The city has experienced many Stanley Cup victories – 24 – and older fans have keen memories of the great dynasties. In the hours before the game on Friday, two separate elderly men plopped their confused grandchildren in front of the Maurice Richard statue in front of the Bell Centre and took pictures.

It’s that pride in their team that makes fans refuse to accept second place.

“There is an expectation that comes with being a Habs fan,” said lifelong supporter Mike Obrand. “The Canadiens were the best team in hockey for generations. Now there is this culture of mediocrity around the team. It creates a giant elephant in the room.”

The Canadiens, now on the brink of elimination, have won 11 more Stanley Cups than any team in the NHL, but their last win was in 1993. Since then, they have never made it to a final, and missed playoffs nine times, more than half of their total playoff misses since 1918. In the past 15 years, they made eight head-coaching changes, and they haven’t had a single point-per-game player on their roster since Alexei Kovalev in 2007-08.

Obrand was just six years old when the Canadiens won their last Stanley Cup, and barely remembers his trips to the old Forum with his father. He recognizes that making it to a Cup final is no small feat in today’s 31-team league. Yet, he maintains that there are no prizes for second place.

“Some of the best hockey moments of my life have been in these series,” he said, “but close only counts in horseshoes.”

Singer-songwriter and Canadiens fan Chris Pennington said he has felt brief moments of joy throughout the playoffs, such as when the Habs eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs and “sent those smirking frat boys home.” Yet, he hesitates to celebrate. What matters to him is how they compete against the Lightning.

Pennington said he remembers how quickly fans gave up on the Canadiens when they lost in the Stanley Cup conference final in 2010 to the Philadelphia flyers. To honour the team, he wrote a song called Stand by Your Habs to the melody of Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man. The music video garnered 15,000 views on YouTube. He said the song’s third line “You have good times to make those bad times feel like a godforsaken dream” still rings true for him today.

“Our heritage is having this powerful, winning team. My whole childhood was the Canadiens winning all the time. It makes us greedy ... hard to satisfy.”

Felicity Hamer, the singer in Pennington’s video, is also a lifelong fan. The mother of two, who now lives in Montreal, grew up near the Habs’ practice facility in Verdun, Que. As a kid, she would rush to the front door after every Canadiens’ goal to hear the neighbours scream. When they won in 1993, she said, people on her street made trophies out of margarine containers and paraded through the streets.

“If we win this year, I’m going to buy some margarine – I don’t eat margarine – and will empty it out just to make a Cup for the kids.”

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