The 2013-14 season for the Montreal Canadiens was a strange one. The team, while talented, never seemed to hit their peak potential (a long trend under Michel Therrien’s clubs) but they still hit 100 points and pushed into the playoffs. On March 5, the team acquired their big piece in Thomas Vanek for a pittance at the NHL Trade Deadline, then promptly loss three straight games before the infamous “Ides of March” comeback against the Ottawa Senators that seemed to flip the season around for Montreal.
The team won 11 of their final 14 games, capped by Brian Gionta scoring an overtime penalty shot against the New York Rangers to mark 100 points on the season and ride into the playoffs as the third seed in the Atlantic Division. Awaiting them in the first round were the extremely talented Tampa Bay Lightning. Led by their star sniper Steven Stamkos and the emergence of stars like Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, they made up for the trade of then captain Martin St. Louis rather easily.
However, without their starting goalie, Ben Bishop, due to injury, they were forced to rely on Anders Lindback and Kristers Gudlevskis in the playoffs. Neither goalie seemed to be up to stopping much and the Canadiens took full advantage. While three of four games were decided by a single goal, the Lightning weren’t able to match the goaltending from Carey Price and fell in four games, with Max Pacioretty’s late power-play goal securing the sweep at home for Montreal.
Next up was a seven-game bloodbath against the Boston Bruins. It lived up to every other Habs/Bruins playoff showdown by being ugly, intense, and memorable in more ways than one. It started with P.K. Subban crushing a bomb of a shot by Tuukka Rask in double overtime to win game one. That was followed by the early stages of Milan Lucic’s rivalry with Dale Weise, and Subban scoring straight out of the penalty box in one of the most electrifying moments in Canadiens’ history.
Then, after losing two games in a row, Montreal had their backs to the wall and with Nathan Beaulieu playing in place of Douglas Murray the Canadiens rose off the mat. They shut out Boston 4-0 before securing 3-1 victory in the final game to crush the hopes of the President’s Trophy winning Bruins.
What laid in front of them was one more series, one against a team they always seemed to play their best against; The New York Rangers. The Rangers, much like Montreal, were bolstered by a franchise netminder in Henrik Lundqvist and solid depth up and down the line, with a major addition coming midway through the year in the form of Martin St. Louis. When the series began, it looked like it was a toss up in every way — until three minutes and fifteen seconds into the second period of game one.
Chris Kreider, with a slight nudge from Alexei Emelin, barreled skate first into Price, shredding Price’s knee and making Kreider persona non grata in the province of Quebec. Peter Budaj failed to stop much of anything after taking over for Price, and Dustin Tokarski took the net for the rest of the series. While the former World Junior hero did all that he could, the Canadiens never quite recovered. But they didn’t quit either.
Alex Galchenyk won game three in overtime, before St. Louis was left all alone by Emelin in game four’s overtime and ripped a shot over Tokarski to put Montreal on the ropes again. In game five, it was Rene Bourque who continued his blistering playoffs, notching a hat trick while chasing Lundqvist from the net in a 7-4 drubbing. Yet, it was a 1-0 nothing score line in game six that spelled the end of the Canadiens quest for a Stanley Cup. A disappointing end to a run that saw a team topple every challenge in front of them, until their star goalie was injured.
There have been better teams in Montreal’s history to not win Stanley Cups, but for this writer, 2014 stings because it’s the closest I’ve seen the team get in my lifetime. When Kreider launched into Price, I was celebrating my college graduation and I knew immediately this series was over. The Canadiens were going to go as far as Carey Price willed them, and against the Rangers it very well could have been to another series victory. Price himself said he would have been ready if the team advanced to the finals, and it seems hard to bet against a guy who plays his best hockey under the brightest lights.
Two majorly emotional series wins led the Canadiens to a conference final, where it took one play to crush the high hopes of Montreal fans everywhere. That 2014 club had a lot of intangible things going in their favour — Weise continued to grow as a cult hero, Bourque and Lars Eller became playoff stars, and Subban grew into a superstar right before our eyes.
That team had every chance in the world of getting another Cup if Price wasn’t injured. But, unfortunately, we’ll never know. There have likely been better overall teams in Montreal history, but in recent memory, it’s hard to think of many better than the one that fell just short of a berth in the Stanley Cup finals.