Late morning, and the Montreal Canadiens stretch at centre ice at Rogers Arena, readying for their evening match against the Vancouver Canucks. Players are side-by-side around the centre ice circle. P.K. Subban pops into the middle, directly at centre ice, on the faceoff dot, and stretches.
The limbering concludes, and Subban springs to his skates, as though he has a little trampoline handy, and then bursts into a rip around the ice, an extra spice of vigour in his stride.
Subban may stretch at centre stage but what defines these Montreal Canadiens is not so much a single young man but a group that some people believe could deliver something special: the first Stanley Cup hoisted by a Canadian team in more than two decades.
The team, as October ends, is tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the best record in the NHL, 8-2 before Thursday night's game. How this came to be is a question that does not have an obvious answer. The Canadiens do not have a single scorer in the league's top 30, have outscored their competition by only a single goal over 10 games, and have so-so puck possession numbers. In 10 outings, the team has ceded the first goal eight times.
There is an important pillar, Carey Price, the goaltender who backstopped Canada to Olympic gold last February. Price has faced the fourth-most shots in the league, and his save-percentage is close to his career best of last year.
To Max Pacioretty, it is all about team, the group. Price is a star, yes, and so is Subban, but Canadiens do not have a face such as Jonathan Toews among their forwards – even if 20-year-old Alex Galchenyuk has emerged as a player with that elite potential.
"On any night, anyone can be the hero," Pacioretty said on Thursday after the game-day skate. "Everyone feels they're a huge part of this team. That team mentality really gives everyone confidence."
After getting within two wins of the Stanley Cup final last spring, the Canadiens are the only realistic hope this season for Canadian hockey fans to see a Stanley Cup claimed by a team from this country. In the 20 seasons since the Canadiens won in 1993, five Canadian teams have reached the final. Vancouver came so close to victory in 1994, and again in 2011. Calgary was achingly close, in 2004, as was Edmonton in 2006. Ottawa made the 2007 final but lost 4-1 to Anaheim, losing three one-goal games.
It is perhaps appropriate it is the Habs who could be the ones to end the drought – though, without doubt, a Cup hoisted by the Toronto Maple Leafs would be a remarkable thing, if not currently a likely outcome.
Alex Burrows, the Canucks winger who grew up near Montreal as a diehard Habs fan, can still recite, in detail, the 1993 Cup run, when he was 12. When he was younger, in elementary school, his parents extended bedtime and let him to stay up to see the first period of games on TV. They taped the second and third on VHS for him, which Alex would watch immediately when he woke up, before school.
On the long Canadian Cup drought, Burrows said it's an unusual confluence of factors.
"The Flames in '04, the puck went in, really, in Game 6 – if there was video [review], they win the Stanley Cup," Burrows said. "We came close. Other teams came close. It's maybe some puck luck. You need everything to go right to win the Stanley Cup."
Subban, after the game-day skate, stood in his skates in the locker room, wearing his hockey pants, a red Habs sweater, and a red Habs tuque, with a blue pom-pom. The defenceman said his team is poised to seize the mantle.
"Over the past couple years," Subban said. "We've gained more and more confidence, in terms of us believing that we can be a contending team."
In one example of a team without a singular centre, literal or figurative, there is no captain; instead, there are four assistants, of which Subban is one. Another example of the varied definition of the team's heart can be found in Brendan Gallagher, 5-foot-9 and 182 pounds, emblematic of the Canadiens' feisty speed and skill.
Gallagher, born in Edmonton, grew up an Oilers fan, and a Habs-obsessed uncle used to razz him, that the Canadiens were superior to the Oilers. "So obviously," said Gallagher with a smile and a laugh, "I learned to hate the Habs. Now my uncle's my biggest fan."
The history of the club, 24 Stanley Cups, does resonate with the 22-year-old winger, a storied history that does – even if it's just hockey, a game, a sport for kids – feel like it compels a duty, a mission.
"It's something you have to understand, all the great players that have put on that jersey before you," Gallagher said. "It really is an opportunity, and a responsibility."