After five months of regular-season action and a six-week playoff run that felt like another five months, the Stanley Cup final is set. On one side, we have the Tampa Bay Lightning, an all-conquering juggernaut that won the Cup last year and had the highest regular-season points total in the salary cap era the year before. Lightning coach Jon Cooper’s lineup sheet is festooned with stars, thanks to a clever manipulation of long-term injured reserve rules that allowed Tampa Bay to roster former league MVP Nikita Kucherov—the team’s joint-most expensive player—without him counting against the salary cap. (Kucherov leads all postseason scorers with 27 points in 18 games.) They’re rich, they’re successful, they’re from Florida—they ought to be the bad guys.
Particularly when juxtaposed with their opponent, the scrappy Montreal Canadiens. A year after parlaying the no. 12 seed in the East into a spirited run in the bubble playoffs, the Habs are back at it again. Montreal squeaked into the postseason as the fourth-ranked team in the NHL’s worst division, with the 18th-best record in a 31-team league. Now, the Habs are somehow just four wins away from their first title in 28 years, as well as Canada’s first title in 28 years. Considering the extent to which the Canadiens dominated the NHL through the 1970s, a return to championship glory would represent an unusual combination of historical gravitas and charming underdog pluck.
This cannot, under any circumstances, be allowed to happen.
It’s not because there’s anything wrong with Montreal, or even the Canadiens as an institution. They’ve got top-notch uniforms, more history than any other three NHL teams combined, and a humongous, rabid fan base. The only French-speaking fan base in the big four North American pro leagues, it bears mentioning, a distinction that would give a Habs championship great sociological import.
And if they were to win, the underdog narrative could hardly be any tidier. The Canadiens’ offense, such as it is, is driven by two absolutely electrifying young forwards: 21-year-old Nick Suzuki and 20-year-old Cole Caufield. Suzuki, a second-year player, came to Montreal in a 2018 trade that sent Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty to Las Vegas. As luck would have it, Suzuki’s Habs beat Pacioretty’s Golden Knights in six games in the last round, with Suzuki outscoring the man he was traded for five points to three. And Caufield entered the playoffs having played just 140 regular-season minutes this year, instead spending the winter torching both Big Ten and international competition. At the University of Wisconsin, he scored 52 points in 31 games and won the Hobey Baker Award—Division I hockey’s Heisman Trophy. Plus he pitched in five points for Team USA en route to world junior gold.
The former Badger sniper is fast, elusive, and creative, and he possesses a deadly wrist shot. He fell into Montreal’s lap with the 15th pick in the 2019 draft because of his size—5-foot-7, 162 pounds—but opposing defensemen can’t hit what they can’t catch.
Then there are the veteran stars that define this team: 35-year-old captain Shea Weber and 33-year-old goalie Carey Price, who have won all manner of individual and international hardware but have yet to see their names hammered into the Cup. And Corey Perry and Eric Staal, who are both looking for a second Cup win after 14 and 15 years, respectively, in the wilderness.
In short, the Habs have no shortage of compelling story lines and are punching way above their weight. What possible reason could there be to root against them?
Well: This team sucks.
Every so often in sports, we see a mediocre team get hot at the right time and pull off a series of upsets in a tournament. That’s really what a Cinderella team is, from the 83-win Cardinals that won the World Series in 2006 to the 11-seeded VCU Rams who made the Final Four in 2011. But Montreal is a step beyond that.
The Canadiens went 24-21-11 in the regular season, which at first glance looks like a respectable record. But because the NHL puts overtime and shootout losses in the area where ties usually go, that first glance can be deceiving. The Habs weren’t three games over .500 this regular season, but eight games under .500. They also finished the season on a worse pace than they began: After getting off to a 9-5-4 start, Montreal replaced coach Claude Julien with Dominique Ducharme, and the team dropped to a pace that would’ve netted them just 80 points in a normal 82-game schedule. (In the last full NHL season, 80 points would’ve left Montreal 18 points adrift of a playoff spot.) Despite sweeping Winnipeg in the second round, the Canadiens remain underwater on the season. In fact, unless they win the Cup, they will finish this season having lost more games than they won.
So how did this happen?
Whenever a bad hockey team starts winning games unexpectedly, Occam’s Razor points to a hot goaltender, and this is no exception. Once upon a time, Price was the best goalie in the world, but he’s dropped off in his 30s and has had one good regular season in the past four. He’s been so rickety that the Canadiens, despite already spending almost 13 percent of their salary cap on Price, gave Jake Allen a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal to act as a backup. But Price has been awesome in the playoffs. He has a .934 save percentage, up from .901 in the regular season, and he’s allowed two goals or fewer in 12 of his 17 starts. It’s very easy to win games under those circumstances.
It also helps that the Canadiens, despite or perhaps because of their skill deficit to their opponents, don’t play a particularly adventurous style. It’s not the most turgid tactical approach in hockey history—the Canadiens can play proactive, aggressive defense when the situation calls for it, and center Phillip Danault in particular is emerging as a future Selke Trophy front-runner. But it ain’t exactly the fire-wagon Leafs-Oilers matchup so many of us were hoping for.
Montreal is scoring 1.87 goals per 60 minutes this postseason, the second lowest of any team that made it out of the first round. In the Habs’ seven-game first-round win over Toronto, they were outscored 18-14 and allowed 38 more shots on goal than they attempted. Against Vegas, they were outshot again, by 28 in just six games.
More than anything, though, the Canadiens have faced opponents that weren’t at full strength. That first-round series against Toronto was poised on a razor’s edge as it was: seven games, four decided by one goal, two of those in overtime. And it probably would’ve swung the other way if not for a freak collision that left Maple Leafs captain John Tavares headed out of the arena on a stretcher after fewer than three minutes of ice time.
In the second round, Montreal didn’t have to contend with Winnipeg’s top center, Mark Scheifele, who took one of the dumbest penalties of the 21st century at the end of Game 1 and got himself suspended for the rest of the series. Then the Knights’ top-line center, Chandler Stephenson, missed three games of the league semifinal series with an injury. And in Game 3, with Vegas two minutes from taking a 2-1 series lead, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury switched off while retrieving a dump-in behind his net and put Montreal back in the driver’s seat for good.
Every team that makes it this far gets breaks, for sure. But to put it in terms your average Ringer reader would understand, the Canadiens are like that 2011-12 Sixers team—an eight-seed that played dismal Doug Collins–inspired basketball and didn’t have a single player average 15 points a game. But Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah both got hurt, the Sixers were able to eke out a first-round victory, and they eventually came within a game of the Eastern Conference finals. Imagine if they’d made it through the Celtics, and then LeBron had gotten suspended, and we had to pretend a team with Spencer Hawes in its rotation had actually competed for a championship. To say nothing of how differently Uncut Gems would’ve turned out.
This being the team that breaks Canada’s hilarious Stanley Cup drought would be a ridiculous outcome. Not the dominant and star-studded Canucks of a decade ago, not the Oilers of McDavid and Draisaitl or the Leafs of Matthews and Tavares, not Iginla’s Flames. These guys. I say this with nothing but the utmost respect for Arcade Fire and Celine Dion, Larry Robinson and Jean Beliveau, for Jacques Villeneuve and Jean-Guy from Letterkenny: Montreal delenda est.