Between the third period and the beginning of the overtime Thursday night, a fat moon rose through a haze of streaky cloud over Montreal.
It was St. Jean Baptiste. There were intermittent bursts of fireworks. Cars roared past decorated with the Canadiens flag in one window and the Quebec fleur-de-lys in another.
It was a fateful concatenation of events. The first time in 28 years the Canadiens had a chance to book a spot in the Stanley Cup final by winning a hockey game. Fifty years since the Miracle Cup of 1971, fifty years since the month when Jean Béliveau retired, Scotty Bowman was hired and Guy Lafleur was drafted.
It was also the 37th anniversary of the death, on June 24, 1984, of stiff-necked former NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell, the man whose antagonism toward Rocket Richard touched off the Richard Riot and the Quiet Revolution.
With all that juju on their side, you didn’t thing the Canadiens were going to lose to the Vegas Knights, did you? Especially now that they have the Forum ghosts on their side – beginning with Bad Joe Hall, who died during another pandemic 102 years ago?
You can analyze it all you want. Talk about faceoff percentages and puck possession and how many goals you’re getting from the defence, and it’s still a cup of warm spit next to that voodoo tide the Canadiens unleash when they catch one of these waves.
Remember, the Canadiens were a team before Las Vegas was a wide spot in the road. They pack more tradition into one Christmas sweater than the Golden Knights can squeeze out of a battalion of cheerleaders. Now the Knights are just a skpeed bump on the highway of life.
Never mind what the talking heads tell you or how impossible it seems: when the Canadiens have the wind at their backs, they’re well-nigh unbeatable. I know this, because that was my first lesson in Habs 101: I arrived here in 1971, at about the same time as Frank Mahovlich and a couple of months ahead of Ken Dryden.
That was the year my friend John X. Cooper and I left the pub where we were watching the Habs get clobbered by Boston. The score was 5-1 when we went to hear Buddy Guy at the Esquire Show Bar on Stanley St., and it was the blues legend who informed us that the Canadiens had stormed back to win, 7-5, with Béliveau leading the charge.
So don’t tell me the Canadiens can’t do it. They can. They always had it in them, even during that long, desperate grind of a 59-point pandemic season. The very nature of that season hid how good they were. Turns out Marc Bergevin did make a series of terrific offseason moves and more ahead of the trade deadline to make this team a contender.
Not a regular season, run up a bunch of points while your stars fatten their stats kind of contender. (Hello, Maple Leafs, out there on the golf course.) A bona fide contender when it matters, when every game is fraught with tension and every square inch of ice surface is the focus of a battle.
The immortal Red Fisher must be smiling down on this today, because it was Red who would often say, “never give an inch, and if you do – make sure it’s only an inch.”
The playoffs, sweetheart, are a different animal. I don’t think the game in any other sport changes as much from regular season to playoffs as hockey.
That big four on defence? Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry? They’re playoff guys.
That checking line? First Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Jake Evans, then Artturi Lehkonen after Evans was clobbered by Mark Schiefele during Game 1 of the Winnipeg series? They’re playoff guys.
Not only have they shut down some of the best offensive forwards in the game, they left Mark “Microfracture” Stone of the Knights sitting stone-faced at the microphone during his zoom conference Thursday night. Another sweet moment of sweet revenge.
I called the Canadiens to win this series in six games. Not many media types were leaning that way, but it was a case of knowing more by knowing less. I couldn’t tell you the Corsi score of any player on either side. Apart from a couple of games in their series against Colorado, I didn’t even see the Knights play before this series.
But I’ve seen Jeff Petry with the juju eyeballs, and I’ve seen the way Carey Price is playing, and having lived through ’71 with Dryden, and ’86, and ’93 with Patrick Roy, I know destiny when I see it. Head coach Dominique Ducharme sidelined by the COVID-19 protocols? No problem. Assistant Luke Richardson steps in and the Habs don’t miss a beat, because destiny.
Even destiny needs a nudge now and then and this team got it from young master Cole Caufield. Caufield wasn’t even dressed for the first two games against the Leafs but he has given the Canadiens an entirely different dimension, keeping everyone loose with that smile was making play after pivotal play.
There he was again on Thursday, chipping the puck ahead, then turning hulking Brayden McNabb into a pylon before beating Robin Lehner with another quick, high shot.
That gave the Canadiens a 2-1 lead. The Knights would tie it, leading to a tense overtime that ended with a sweet passing play, Gallagher to Danault to Lehkonen for the goal as the checking line rode to glory.
Lehkonen, forgotten at times, had seven goals in 47 games during the regular season. Now he has three in 12 games in the playoffs.
What a year. What a team. What a way to emerge from a pandemic. And it ain’t over. Doesn’t matter who they play in the final, Islanders or Lightning, this prediction stands:
Habs in seven. The parade will take the usual route – and Bergy’s garish red suit is going to the Hall of Fame.