The Montreal Canadiens have overcome wave after wave of adversity in 2021.
From losing streaks to a COVID-19 shutdown to injuries and long odds throughout an improbable playoff run, these underdogs mustered a response each and every time their backs were pressed firmly against the wall.
A franchise in search of its 25th Stanley Cup, and Canada’s first since Montreal last hoisted hockey’s Holy Grail on a June night back in 1993, will have to dig far deeper than at any point in this trying year to keep that now-flickering dream alive.
The Canadiens face the daunting task of climbing a mountain that only one other NHL team has ever conquered — erasing a 3-0 deficit in the final. And it has to happen against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” winger Josh Anderson said as Montreal prepared for Monday’s Game 4 at the Bell Centre, which can be seen at 8 p.m. ET on CBC and CBCSports.ca. “Everyone’s going to be ready, I can tell you that.
“We’re not finished yet.”
As tough as the challenge is against a well-oiled opponent without weak links that pounces on mistakes with lethal precision, being written off is nothing new for a team left for dead time and again.
‘It’s been a difficult season’
After firing its coach in February and enduring a coronavirus outbreak in March, the battered and bruised Canadiens limped into the post-season with the NHL’s 18th-best record at the conclusion of its pandemic-shortened schedule.
Montreal looked done and dusted through four games of the opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but down 3-1 in the series, won three straight against a heavily favoured adversary to take it in seven before a stunning sweep of the Winnipeg Jets.
The grinding Canadiens continued to roll against the Vegas Golden Knights — the league’s biggest third-round favourite in more than 30 years — and triumphed even after interim bench boss Dominique Ducharme tested positive for COVID-19, which forced him to watch his team from isolation for two weeks.
The Canadiens were once again a longshot in the final, but also quietly confident in their formula.
But here’s the problem: Tampa possesses its own blueprint for success and, except for Game 2 when Montreal probably deserved a better fate, has executed it to a T.
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Now the Canadiens require another counterpunch or they’ll be saying their physically distanced goodbyes in short order.
“It’s been a difficult season,” Montreal defenceman Jeff Petry said. “It’s presented challenges throughout challenges in different ways.
“This is another one. I wouldn’t expect it any differently with the year we’ve had.”
Ducharme said his players, who are hoping to join the 1942 Leafs as the only team to come back from a 3-0 hole to win the Cup, will fight until their last breath.
“That group has grown stronger together throughout the moments, adversity, and facing those situations,” Ducharme said. “We show it every day. Sometimes we lose a game or it doesn’t go exactly like you wanted.
“But there’s one thing that’s for sure — it’s not a lack of trying, it’s not a lack of will.”
‘Our focus is to make sure we play the right way’
The Lightning, meanwhile, are on the cusp of capturing their second straight title, and third overall, after winning inside last year’s post-season bubble.
Tampa can become just the second team in 22 years to claim back-to-back championships — joining the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins — the first team to sweep the final since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings, and just the second visiting club to lift the Cup on Canadiens’ ice, following in the footsteps of the 1989 Calgary Flames.
“It becomes like a legacy thing,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said of repeating. “It’s street cred for the guys, for the organization.”
Petry said denying Tampa that moment at the Bell Centre doesn’t provide any added motivation.
“We don’t want to see the Lightning win the Stanley Cup at all,” he said. “You’re not going to win four games by winning (Monday).
“Our focus is to make sure we play the right way a strong, hard game.”
‘One more job to do’
Down 2-0 in the series, the Canadiens fell behind 2-0 early Friday thanks to a series of errors, and faced a three-goal deficit before the second period was four minutes old. Outscored a combined 14-5 through nine periods of action, Montreal hasn’t led for a single second against Tampa.
“The adjustment is not major,” Ducharme said. “We know what we need to do and we know it’s about executing. It’s about executing under pressure. It’s about making those plays at the right time.”
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The Canadiens faced elimination three times against Toronto in the first round and survived.
Now some 5 1/2 weeks later — it feels a lot longer in this crazy playoff spring that’s morphed into an unlikely Cup final summer — they once again have zero room for error.
“Everybody in that locker room believes in each other,” Anderson said. “The guys have been through a lot this year. We stuck together and we made it this far.
“We’ve got one more job to do.”
Then they’ll have to do it three more times.