The Montreal Canadiens lack offensive star power. Their up-and-coming snipers and playmakers — Nick Suzuki (21), Jesperi Kotkaniemi (20), and Cole Caufield (20) — are arguably too young and inexperienced for playoff hockey.
The gnarly Corey Perry (36), Eric Staal (36) and captain Shea Weber (35) are on the back end of their careers. And goalie Carey Price — a future Hockey Hall of Famer — is coming off a shaky regular season in which he posted a mortal .901 save percentage.
As it turns out, none of that matters. The Canadiens, the last National Hockey League team to clinch a playoff spot, are the first team to book passage to the Stanley Cup semifinals.
"It kind of feels like no one believes in us," a jubilant Tyler Toffoli said Monday after scoring the overtime winner in a 3-2 Montreal victory to sweep the Winnipeg Jets in four games of the North Division Final.
The crowd of 2,500 — admitted to the Bell Centre amid strict COVID-19 public health restrictions — erupted with the familiar in honour of their heroes.
"The only people we have are ourselves and our fans — which, clearly with the small amount of fans in the building, it sounded a lot more than what it was — are behind us and our friends and family," Toffoli said. "We're sticking together. We're playing as one and we're winning games and having fun."
Habs teetered on brink of elimination
Who would have predicted this 12 days ago when the Canadiens trailed the Toronto Maple Leafs three games to one, teetering on the brink of elimination.
Since then, they've reeled off seven straight victories, eliminating the Leafs and Jets along the way.
It has a familiar feel of when the Canadiens last captured the Stanley Cup in 1993: great goaltending, gritty play, timely scoring.
Square to the puck and aggressive on the lip of his crease, Price looks much like the same goalie who backstopped Team Canada to gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Through 11 playoff games, Price has a 1.97 goals against average and a .935 save percentage
"You just have to give them all the credit," said Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler. "With the goaltending they have, any breakdowns, he's putting out those fires. And we just couldn't get the first goal. We just couldn't do it all series. That plays right into their hands.
"If we could have just found a way to get that first goal, it could be a different series, but we didn't. You just have to give them so much credit. They're playing unbelievable right now."
Offensively, the Canadiens scored by committee, led by Toffoli, Suzuki, Joel Armia, Staal and Perry.
Defensively, Weber and the Canadiens outmuscled the Jets in front of the net and neutralized Winnipeg's offensive firepower.
"There's such a great group of guys in there," Weber said of the Montreal locker-room. "That translates on the ice. Everyone does their job and has a specific job that they're supposed to do on the ice. And that's part of it, too.
"But I think that everyone plays for each other and does the right thing for their teammates."
Colorado or Vegas
Up next for the Canadiens: either the Colorado Avalanche or Vegas Golden Knights. The two powerhouses are deadlocked 2-2 in their second-round series.
Regardless of which team advances, the Canadiens will be the underdog, once again.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us," said interim head coach Dominique Ducharme. "Our goal isn't to stop here. If we want to reach our goal, we need to beat the best teams."
Centre Phillip Danault was born in Victoriaville, Que., just three months before the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup 28 years ago.
"I've been dreaming about bringing it back to Montreal one day," Danault said. "I think this is our chance."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vicki has written about sports in Canada for more than 15 years for CBC Sports, Postmedia, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. She has covered five Olympic Games, 10 Grey Cup championships and one Stanley Cup Final. In 2015, Vicki won a National Newspaper Award for sports writing and is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
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