Thirteen days that shook the north

            Thirteen days.

That’s all it took. Thirteen days.

            Thirteen days that upended the North Division of the National Hockey League. Thirteen days to save the jobs of the GM, head coach and who knows how many other scouts and assistants.

            Thirteen days to knock the Maple Leafs Stanley Cup train off the rails and eliminate the Winnipeg Jets. Thirteen days to make heroes of a bunch of players who had been maligned all season long (Phillip Danault, Artturi Lehkonen) or at least since the trade deadline (Eric Staal.)

            Thirteen days and seven straight wins, three of them in overtime and three while facing elimination at the hands of the hated Leafs.

            Thirteen days to go from a meek, first-round ouster to the Final Four, the Stanley Cup semifinal, with a series looming against either the Las Vegas Knights or the Colorado Avalanche – and most of this province pulling for the Avalanche and a reawakening of the old Nordiques-Habs rivalry, hopefully without the bench-clearing brawls this time.

            As recently as Tuesday, May 25, none of this seemed likely or even possible.

            The Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the Stanley Cup favourites and, in the minds of the “national” media, the only Canadian NHL team that matters, had just drubbed the Habs 4-0 at home. The Canadiens found themselves behind in the series, three games to one, with the Leafs poised to finish it off in Hogtown two nights later.

            After a difficult, disappointing season when the Habs struggled with COVID, injuries, slumps and far too many games in too little time, it seemed inevitable: the Canadiens would be kicked to the curb by the mighty Leafs and an offseason reckoning was in store.

Interim head coach Dominique Ducharme, almost certainly, would not be back. GM Marc Bergevin, a target for fans and media almost since the first day he stepped into his office, would be let go. Even Assistant General Manager Trevor Timmins, the boss of amateur scouting, was under fire after 25 years on the job.

But you play the games on the ice, not on Twitter, Facebook or (especially) the talking heads crew on Sportsnet’s wretched Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts. There was life in the Habs carcass after all.

In Game 5 in Toronto, the Finns took over early. Joel Armia scored twice in the first period to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the 20-year-old who spent most of the season being compared unfavorably with Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk, made it 3-0 early in the second period.

But a 3-0 lead seemed too much for the stumbling Habs. The mighty Leafs stormed back with a goal from Zach Hyman and two from defenceman Jake Muzzin. Disgusted fans in Montreal shut off their television sets and went to bed.

They missed what followed, with Ducharme’s bunch surviving the third period and then winning it when Nick Suzuki scored 59 seconds into the overtime on a beautiful feed from prize rookie Cole Caufield, who hadn’t even played the first two games of the series. (Suzuki and Caufield’s combined age was roughly equal to that of Joe Thornton, the long-bearded former San Jose Shark who was supposed to help Toronto get over the playoff hump at last.)

That one made it possible for the series to return to Montreal and a Game 6 played in front of fans, the first time in nearly a year there had been actual fannies in the seats for a NHL game in Canada. Quebec had changed the pandemic rules to make it possible for 2,500 fans to attend the game, and well-heeled season-ticket holders immediately disgraced themselves by scalping their seats for $4,000 and more.

The Canadiens had missed a great opportunity to get those 2,500 tickets to front-line health workers who had risked their lives during the pandemic but the team on the ice was not affected in the least.

Game 6 followed much the same pattern as Game 5. Crusty veteran Corey Perry, such a key component of this remarkable stretch, got the Canadiens on the board in the third period and Tyler Toffoli made it 2-0 – but again, the Leafs battled back on goals from Jason Spezza and T.J. Brodie.

That sent the clubs to overtime again and at 15:15 of the first OT period Kotkaniemi, who wears number 15, scored to give the Habs a 3-2 victory and tie the series at three games apiece. Suddenly the Leafs, who were meant to waltz over the bleu-blanc-rouge, were squeezing their sticks too tight and alleged superstars Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews were in choke mode.

Brendan Gallagher scored to get the Canadiens rolling in Game 7, Perry and Toffoli chipped in again to make it 3-0 and a meaningless late goal from William Nylander didn’t change a thing. To recycle the oldest joke in the book – it was spring and the Leafs were out.

Montreal was giddy. Fans who were ready to lynch Bergevin less than a week earlier were talking about what a brilliant job he had done in putting this team together. Fans and media alike suddenly discovered that Ducharme can indeed coach.

Those mindful of history noted that it has been 50 years this spring since the Canadiens first upset the Bobby Orr Bruins en route to the 1971 Miracle Cup and that in 1993, the CH had fallen behind the Nordiques, two games to none, before taking that series on their way to another Miracle Cup.

Given the high emotions and the fact that the Winnipeg were coming off a long layoff, it seemed that Montreal would suffer an inevitable letdown against the Jets on the road. Beginning the second-round series only two days after finishing off the Leafs, the Canadiens took an early lead on goals from Kotkaniemi and Staal, stretched it to 3-1 on Suzuki’s third goal of the playoffs and managed to hold off the Jets with Brendan Gallagher scoring in the third period and Jake Evans scoring a wraparound empty-net goal to make it 5-3.

You know the aftermath of that one, with Jets star Mark Scheifele skating the length of the ice and attempting to decapitate Evans a split second after he scored. Evans was concussed, Scheifele was suspended four games and no one knew what the emotional impact on either team would be.

As it turned out, the Jets were never really in it again. They lost the second game at home 1-0, showed little in a 5-1 battering at the Bell Centre Sunday. Down 2-0 in Game 4, they managed to tie it on a pair of goals by towering, offensively challenged defenceman Logan Stanley but the Canadiens delivered as dominating a performance as you will see in the playoffs, outshooting the Jets, 42-16.

This time, the overtime period lasted all of a minute and 39 seconds before Toffoli put the Jets out of their misery on another beautiful feed from Caufield.

Suddenly, the Canadiens are cruising into a series against either of two very powerful American teams. On paper, they have no chance. But they have Carey Price, who is as locked in as we have ever seen him, fierce and confident and unwilling to yield.

And they have a team that has come together in that mysterious way teams sometimes do at playoff time, with everyone contributing and Ducharme unable to put a foot wrong.

Thirteen days from zeros to heroes. Thirteen days from a first-round exit to the semifinals. Thirteen days from failure to glory.

            Thirteen days that will not be forgotten as long as this town lives and breathes hockey.

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