The team Hockey Night forgot

 At the end of the first period of this unforgettable Game 7, Hockey Night in Canada went to its analysts to tell us what we had just seen.

            It had been a pretty even period, with the Leafs the better team early, then the Canadiens taking over and leading in shots at the break – but one by one, the analysts stepped up to talk about all the things Toronto was doing right.

            Was there a mention of the other team playing? If there was, I missed it.

            Then the second period began, Brendan Gallagher beat Leafs goalie Jack Campbell with a long wrist shot through the five hole, and the Canadiens were almost on their way to Winnipeg. By the time the second intermission rolled around, the HNIC crew looked stricken.

            It’s not the story of a playoff series that will go straight into the lore of the greatest team in the history of the game (no, it’s not the Maple Leafs) but it is an illustration of the way this has gone since the rise of the Toronto Sports Networks. There is zero objectivity from the “national” media, zero self-respect from the reporters and analysts who call Toronto home, zero time for the other six NHL teams in this country in the minds of the suits who run the business from Toronto.

            And once again, they’re all left looking like a gaggle of witless cheerleaders. Like Craig Button, who declared before the series began that the Canadiens had absolutely no chance against the mighty Leafs and that they would not win a game in the series.

            That was absurd the moment it left Button’s mouth. The Canadiens always had a chance, as long as they had a healthy Carey Price but there were other factors that should have given Button pause.

            This was an especially hard regular season to read. Players were struggling through a unique set of circumstances – the masks, the absence of fans, the endless games against the same teams, night after night.

And the Canadiens had some additional handicaps – a new coach dumped into the fray in midseason with no time at all to practice, an unwanted COVID vacation when they couldn’t even be on the ice, never more than a single day off down the stretch and the lengthy absence of two very key players in Price and heart-and-soul winger Brendan Gallagher.

Those factors alone should have given Button and the others pause – that and Toronto’s long history of choking when the chips are down. The Leafs had spent the season fattening their stats at the expense of beat-up, worn-down teams in the North Division and hearing endless reports of their greatness from the local sycophants. What would happen if they met a real challenge?

Now we know.

It first occurred to me that this series might be something different when I watched Price in his crease before Game 1. He was wearing a haircut that looked like it was administered with a pair of dull clippers in a barracks during World War 2 and he looked downright pissed off. Like he didn’t just want to stop the Leafs, he wanted to chew up their sticks too.

The Habs won that game but after they lost the next three, it appeared that it was over. There were coaching mistakes, deflections, tough calls from the officials and it appeared that Toronto just had too much firepower for the Canadiens to overcome.

But Price dug in his heels. Led by youngsters Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Cole Caufield and Jake Evans and veterans like Corey Perry, Paul Byron, Shea Weber, Phillip Danault, Ben Chiarot and Gallagher, Montreal battled back.

They won Game 5 in overtime on a brilliant passing play from Suzuki to Caufield and back to Suzuki. They won Game 6 in overtime on a flutterball off the stick of Kotkaniemi.

And finally, they won Game 7 by flat outplaying the Leafs on a performance for the ages from Price and goals from Gallagher, the gritty Perry and an empty-netter from Tyler Toffoli.

Of course the Toronto cheerleaders will never admit that it was anything other than a choke job on the part of the Leafs. As though the Canadiens and the sheer greatness of Price had nothing to do with it.

When it was over, HNIC’s Stache Cam lingered, as always, on the mug of Dirk Dastardly, pretty much ignoring everyone else in their pathetic eagerness to turn the smirking Auston Matthews into some kind of national hero – one thing he is not and never will be.

Meanwhile, Kotkaniemi, who didn’t even play Game 1, has more goals this postseason than Matthews and Connor McDavid combined.

And, as coach Dominique Ducharme said before Game 7, the Canadiens would be stopping in Toronto on the way to Winnipeg, where the Jets are a different beast altogether with a big, tough team and a great goaltender of their own in Connor Hellebuyck.

It should be a great series. The schedule favours the well-rested Jets, but the look on the face of Carey Price says the Canadiens are going to win it in seven games, thus plunging Toronto even more deeply into mourning.

You would hope that some TV and newspaper execs in Hogtown would be wondering today if all that fervor squandered on the Leafs is the way to go, especially when it means alienating the rest of the country from Montreal to Vancouver.

Will they come to their senses and finally offer some even-handed coverage, especially on the CBC platform?

Unlikely – but as the Canadiens have already shown, anything is possible.

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