Dismissed throughout the playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens saw their stirring run finally come to an end.
Montreal was the last team to clinch a playoff spot, with the worst record of the 16 qualifiers, and became the last team eliminated following a 1-0 loss to the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the final on Wednesday night.
Brendan Gallagher, in between wiping tears from his eyes, opened the Canadiens post-game Zoom conference apologizing for being overly emotional.
“It’s hard right now. Sorry,” Gallagher said. “Sorry, I’ll try and answer. We’ve got so many players that worked their entire career to get to this point. and it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Immediately following the game, Corey Perry knelt in disbelief on one knee. Shea Weber stared off into the distance from the bench.
“Very proud. This group has a lot of character,” Weber said. “Went up against a lot of adversity and we proved a lot of people wrong.”
Interim coach Dominic Ducharme revealed several players were playing with injuries, including Weber (thumb), Gallagher (groin and more) and Tyler Toffoli (groin).
“A lot of guys banged up. But they bled. They fought. They never quit,” Ducharme said.
For all the grit and perseverance the Canadiens displayed in overcoming a 3-1 first-round series deficit to Toronto and with Ducharme sent into self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, Montreal came up short against a sturdier and more accomplished opponent.
Ross Colton’s redirection of David Savard’s pass with 6:33 left in the second period clinched Tampa Bay the Cup, but the turning point might well have come with 1 second left in Game 2. That’s when Blake Coleman scored the go-ahead goal by diving in to chip in a shot past Carey Price in an eventual 3-1 win in which the Canadiens thoroughly outplayed the Lightning.
With the loss on Wednesday, the Canadiens extended Canada’s Stanley Cup drought, which dates to Montreal last winning its 24th title in 1993. Montreal was the sixth Canadian team to reach the final, and first since the Vancouver Canucks squandered a 3-2 series lead in losing to Boston in 2011.
With four “Clydesdale” defensemen on the back end, and the addition of Stanley Cup-winning experienced leadership, general manager Marc Bergevin built the Canadiens with an eye on the playoffs.
He and the team came so close in what became Montreal’s deepest playoff run in 28 years, and for a group that was dismissed at the start of each and every round.
Bergevin retooled the team by adding championship experience by signing Perry and Toffoli in free agency, and acquiring Joel Edmundson in a trade. Edmundson solidified Montreal’s core of Big Four defensemen, rounded out by Weber, Ben Chiarot and Jeff Petry.
Not done yet, Bergevin acquired Stanley Cup and Olympic gold-medal winning forward Eric Staal in a trade with Buffalo in March.
In the playoffs, Montreal looked nothing like the team that closed the season 0-3-2 while missing Price and Gallagher to injuries. This was also a team that had to overcome the distraction of a COVID-19 outbreak to pause its season and a coaching shakeup, with Ducharme promoted from his assistant’s role after Claude Julien was fired in February.
Come the playoffs, the Canadiens were transformed into a focused, four-line, opportunistic team which fed off Price shaking off an inconsistent season and regaining a calm, puck-smothering focus in net.
Montreal was catapulted by overtime wins in Games 5 and 6 against Toronto to knock out the Maple Leafs in Game 7. Shrugged off again, the Canadiens then swept the Winnipeg Jets in the North Division final and overcame being outplayed by Vegas in a 4-1 semifinal opener to win the series in six games.
The Canadiens remained defiant when falling behind 3-0 to the Lightning, with Josh Anderson delivering on his “we’re not finished” rallying cry to score twice, including in overtime, in a 3-2 win in Game 4.
Montreal avoided becoming the first team swept in the final round since Washington lost to Detroit in 1998. And the Canadiens denied the Lightning from joining the 1989 Calgary Flames and 1928 New York Rangers in becoming the third team to be awarded the Cup in Montreal.
The playoffs showed the Canadiens have a promising future with the combination of second-year forward Nick Suzuki and rookie Cole Caufield, who has appeared in more playoff games (20) than regular season (10).
Questions remain, however, for a team with aging stars in Price (34 next year) and Weber (36), and key players eligible to become free agents, including top defensive forward Phillip Danault and the entire fourth line of Perry, Staal and Joel Armia.