In January, when the Canadiens opened training camp, their general manager Marc Bergevin maintained that the club he assembled was built to win during the playoffs.
Such a proclamation is not unusual in the National Hockey League, but it is for it to be true. In any given year there are only a handful of such teams. Montreal did not figure to be among them.
A little less than six months later, the Canadiens are one victory away from advancing to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 28 years. They overcame a 3-1 series deficit to beat Toronto, rode roughshod over Winnipeg and now hold a 3-2 lead over Vegas in the best-of-seven semi-finals.
They can advance to hockey’s biggest stage with a win before 3,500 spectators at the Bell Centre on Thursday, which is St.-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec. Talk about a victory party.
“If we could get more fans in, we could have a really good celebration,” Luke Richardson, Montreal’s acting head coach, said Wednesday before the team’s five-hour flight home from Las Vegas. “That’s what this feels like right now.”
The Canadiens throttled the Golden Knights 4-1 in Game 5 on Tuesday. Max Pacioretty had the lone goal for Vegas, and it was his first of the series. Mark Stone, the team’s captain, has none and broke his stick in frustration during the defeat. Its best player has been Alex Pietrangelo, but he has become so obsessed with the Habs’ irritating Brendan Gallagher that he seems to be losing focus.
As a group, the Golden Knights forwards have been held to four goals in five games. The power-play units are 0 for 13. At the same time, the Canadiens’ centres and wingers have scored a dozen times. Montreal has struck twice with the man advantage.
“I don’t have any clear answers for you,” Peter DeBoer, the Golden Knights head coach, said Tuesday night.
To this point, few people have given the Canadiens and especially Bergevin their due. Excuses are being offered instead of respect. Yes, they beat Toronto, but the Maple Leafs are soft. Yes, they did away with the Jets, but their best player was suspended. Yes, they are leading the Golden Knights, but perhaps it’s a mirage in the desert.
What has transpired so far is not an accident.
In the off-season, Bergevin added Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson and Corey Perry to the roster. All have won Stanley Cups. At the trade deadline, he acquired another Cup winner in Eric Staal.
Staal scored on Tuesday, Toffoli had two assists and Perry had another. The other goals were scored by 21-year-old Nick Suzuki and two 20-year-olds, Cole Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Between them they have raked Vegas for five goals and 12 points.
Imagine the furor in Toronto if the Maple Leafs had youngsters this productive at playoff time. Kyle Dubas would be the toast of Bay Street.
Montreal has a big, rugged defence led by veterans Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. Its third-best defenceman, Ben Chiarot, had seven hits in Game 5. The Canadiens have been faster and more opportunistic than their opponents. They have outworked them, too. Against Vegas, they have not lost their cool, even when Perry got poked in the nose and Suzuki got punched in the face.
Before a victory in Game 3, Bergevin gave his team a fire-and-brimstone speech in the dressing room. Not many general managers would feel comfortable enough to do that. Bergevin is a former NHL defenceman and is unafraid. He doesn’t come across as a guy who has doubts.
“[Marc] is a passionate guy,” Richardson said Wednesday. He has taken over the Canadiens bench because Dominique Ducharme, their interim head coach, is in isolation after a positive test for COVID-19. “He really believes in this team and wears his heart on his sleeve and the guys see that.
”There is nothing more the players want to do than play for this organization and especially for him. I think that shows on the ice.”
The Canadiens, of course, are not quite where they want to be yet. But they are darn close. Nobody gave them much of a chance but they looked designed for this. They have all of that, and Carey Price, too.
Vegas is unlikely to go away with a whimper. The Golden Knights are grumpy.
“Sometimes things don’t go the way you plan,” Pietrangelo said Tuesday night. “You play seven games for a reason.”
Perhaps it will go seven, and the momentum will turn in the Golden Knights’ favour. Don’t expect the Canadiens to be intimidated.
“It has been a good run so far, but we are still a long way from what we want to achieve,” Joel Armia, a Montreal winger, said.
With files from Dylan Earis.