Maybe it’s time to admit it – the Canadiens can play

They have won in Toronto. They have won in Winnipeg. Now they have won a game in Las Vegas to seize the home-ice advantage as they head back to Montreal for games Friday and Sunday.

            At some point, we are going to have to concede that these Canadiens can play a little shinny and that GM Marc Bergevin knew what he was doing when he put this team together.

            Rarely has a team received so little credit for accomplishing so much. The detractors, many of whom actually call themselves fans, just won’t stop bellyaching. They say the Canadiens only beat the Toronto Maple Leafs because John Tavares was injured. They beat the Winnipeg Jets because Mark Scheifele took himself out of the lineup with a single vicious, stupid play.

            They won a game from the garishly named Golden Knights because… well, maybe they were simply better?

            When you win nine games in the Stanley Cup playoffs, you’re doing something right. When you fall behind three games to one against the offensive powerhouse that is the Leafs and then storm back to win three straight, you’re doing something right.

            When you take on a big, tough Jets team with a superb goaltender and simply manhandle them out of the playoffs, you’re doing something right.

            When you fly out to a scorching desert town where the temperature Wednesday hit 47 degrees Celsius and find yourself down after getting bulldozed in the first game and you go up 3-0 on the powerful Knights before they’re able to run that faceoff play to Alex Pietrangelo for a couple of goals, you’re doing something right.

            The Knights have what may be the league’s best defence corps, they have a hot Marc-André Fleury and line after line of big, dangerous forwards. They were facing a Canadiens team that had to be facing some doubts after getting pummeled in Game 1. They were playing in front of a full house.

            And still they came up short against a Canadiens team that was simply on the puck in every corner of the rink. When you see sniper Tyler Toffoli out there on the penalty kill throw a big hit and then hustle all the way back down the ice, you know they’re going flat out with one goal in mind: A parade in July.

            The Canadiens have given themselves a chance to win it all. In what is soon to be a 32-team league, that’s all you can ask. You can get up on your high horse and thump the table and demand that they win five straight Stanley Cups the way they did in the 1950s, or four out of five as they did in the 1960s, or four in a row and six times in a decade as they did in the 1970s but that is frankly ridiculous. Too many teams, too much salary cap, too many injuries.

            If you’re willing to be just a bit realistic, you will admit that the Canadiens have already done all that could be expected in this post-season – and they aren’t through yet. Toffoli and Joel Armia each have five playoff goals, also known as five times as many as Auston Matthews. Paul Byron has scored two beautiful breakaway game winners. The Phillip Danault line has neutralized some of the most dangerous players in the league. The defence has been bigger, tougher and better than anyone anticipated.

            The coaching? Dominique Ducharme, deemed not ready for prime time as his team struggled through impossible circumstances minus Carey Price, Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin, has proven that he can be a superb coach with a relatively healthy team and just a little time to prepare.

            Then there’s Carey Price. Angry, focused, utterly determined, even surlier than usual, Price is still the straw that stirs the drink. Fleury has been as good as it gets – but he was clearly outplayed by Price Wednesday night.

            More than anything, this team is playing as a team. Everyone is contributing for old dudes Corey Perry, Eric Staal and Shea Weber to young dudes Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield (whose superb pass on Toffoli’s goal showed an instinctive understanding of the game far beyond his years) everyone is contributing.

            The feeling here remains unchanged. They are going to win this series in six games, and they are going to win the next one, too.

            And if they don’t? So what? It has been a dazzling run in a horrendous pandemic season. This team already deserves as much credit as any Cup winner of the glorious past. When it’s over, win or lose, I will tip my battered Expos cap to the bunch of them and mutter:

            Well played, boys. Well played.

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