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What was that Montreal Canadiens season?

Trying to make sense of the 2020-21 Montreal Canadiens season.

Vegas Golden Knights v Montreal Canadiens - Game Six Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

There was optimism in the air in Toronto on August 22, 2020. No, not from the locals — that’s a story for another day — but rather from their biggest rivals. Despite the Montreal Canadiens’ elimination from a unique post-season by the Philadelphia Flyers, Marc Bergevin was upbeat.

“The end-of-year media op we’re having today compared to what it would have been in April without being in the playoffs and without having beaten Pittsburgh would have been very different. We’re ahead of where we thought we were. What we see today is a team that’s going in the right direction, a team our fans can be proud of.”

Putting on a brave face? Prospecting based on fool’s gold? Not according to both the team and keen observers around the league.

Now, 11 months on, Bergevin’s words seem prophetic. But even the man in the red suit couldn’t have envisioned the year that lay ahead.

The Canadiens started the 2020-21 season exactly where they had left off in the bubble, with a close defeat on Scotiabank Arena ice. Despite the outcome, the game yielded signs that things were percolating beneath the surface. The rookie made an early impact. The new trade acquisition burned his speed into the collective memory of les partisans.

This was a Canadiens team that could go toe-to-toe with the best that Canada had to offer. And it did just that.

Auston Matthews.

Connor McDavid.

A Vancouver Canucks team that had been the darlings of the western bubble.

A Calgary Flames team that had made considerable off-season acquisitions.

Sixteen points through the first 10 games. First place in the new North Division.

Canadiens fans were no stranger to fast starts, they had become something of an annual tradition during Michel Therrien’s second stint, but this felt different. This was a wave of energy fueled by controlled aggression and a joie de vivre on the ice arguably not encouraged since Alexei Kovalev donned the Tricolore. The goaltending was a pillar rather than a crutch, and even the power play was good!

The Frenchmen were flying again.

How the hell did we end up here?

Marc Bergevin didn’t say those words to the public, but he must have thought them during the week that separated the conclusion of the Canadiens’ regular season schedule and the start of the playoffs.

It all seemed innocuous at the time. A home-and-home split against the Ottawa Senators of all teams. But a free-flowing nothing-to-lose Senators teams gave the Habs a bit of their own medicine by coming at them with a ferocity they had not faced up to that point, and it put them on their heels. Despite a three-day interlude, Montreal’s next effort was “anemic” and “listless.” The 4-2 defeat in Toronto would be followed by more losses: a shutout against the Edmonton Oilers, a two-game sweep at the hands of the Senators. Suddenly, the 7-1-2 team was 9-5-4, and the writing was on the wall for Claude Julien.

The new guy didn’t yield immediate dividends, but the start of the Dominique Ducharme era did see the team show signs of returning to the up-tempo style that carried them through January. The Canadiens took at least one point in nine of Ducharme’s first 12 games. It wasn’t great, but it was certainly better than before.

Then sports intersected with life. A positive COVID-19 test on March 22, 2021 for Joel Armia forced the Canadiens into a week-long quarantine. The short-term gains (three wins in four games immediately after) would quickly turn into long-term pain (21 games in the final 36 days, yielding a 7-12-2 record). After flying so high to start, the Habs limped into the post-season by the skin of their teeth, securing qualification only in their second-to-last game of the regular season.

And while 18th overall was an improvement on 24th, as Bergevin headed back to Toronto, his words back in the bubble rang hollow, drowned out by calls for his job.

Through four playoff games, the Habs had mounted little opposition to a Toronto Maple Leafs team expected to waltz through Canada en route to the final four. A 4-0 win on Bell Centre ice punctuated by three points from old friend Alex Galchenyuk was supposed to be the final nail in the coffin.

And so the two teams crossed the provincial border back into Ontario for the anticipated coronation. The first series victory for the Maple Leafs since 2004. The first series win over the Canadiens since 1967. The first step on a long playoff run that would prime the Leafs to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders for years to come. The start of a long off-season of soul-searching for the Habs.

Somewhere between Games 4 and 5, the script flipped.

Maybe it was desperation, maybe it was epiphany, or maybe it was simply daring. But the first 40 minutes of hockey on May 27 bore no resemblance to the four games preceding it. The Canadiens pushed the play, driving the favourites back on their heels. To show that it wasn’t a fluke, they did the exact same thing again in Game 6.

In both cases, they earned two-goal advantages in the final frame. In both cases, old habits came back to roost. Seeing-eye shots and fluky bounces off Canadiens defenders saw two squandered leads and two extra frames.

But this time, the team would not yield in the face of adversity. The veterans pulled themselves off the mat, the kids kept their nerve and their exuberance, and Carey Price stepped up the only time he was truly needed in the series. The Canadiens kept going, and the Leafs blinked first. Two turnovers, two game-winners, and suddenly, there was a series.

Or maybe not.

Out of gas, out of luck, and out of time, the Toronto Maple Leafs mustered up little when it was their turn to face elimination. There was a coronation on Scotiabank Arena ice, but it was with a couronne, not a crown.

“We control what we can control.”

Before the ink on the eulogies had dried, Dominique Ducharme’s words from before the playoffs were put to the test again, this time courtesy of Mark Scheifele. However, amid the fallout from Scheifele’s assault, most observers forgot that a hockey game had been played, a hockey game that the Canadiens, despite the emotional and physical toll of their first-round series, had dominated.

The Canadiens, however, remembered.

Keeping their eyes on the prize, Montreal realized that the best thing for all parties involved was for Scheifele to simply not play another game in the season — and that they had everything in their power to make that happen.

Suddenly, the Canadiens were North Division champions.

The speed and comprehensiveness of the Jets’ dismantling did not go unnoticed, but still, this is where everyone expected the story to end. Especially when the Vegas Golden Knights confirmed their seat at the table.

As the series progressed, something strange happened. After two games, the Canadiens and the Knights were evenly matched. The Knights had more shots, the Canadiens had more chances, and the expected goals share was slightly in favour of Montreal. Games 3 and 4 were more of the same, except both teams lost the game that they should have won. Spectacular goaltender puckhandling gaffes notwithstanding, the Habs had earned their victories as much as their defeats.

Once again, a supposed blowout had become a nail-biter. Once again, the Canadiens had a chance to control their own destiny. Once again, the Canadiens met the challenge head-on. Although it was close, they would not trail again for the rest of the series.

Not all stories are fortunate enough to end on a happy note, and this one ends with no trophy, no parade, and no immortality. But it leaves us without a neat conclusion, an open ending to a grand tale that yearns for finality.

And that creates the question of the day: What was all that?

A season special in so many ways, oscillating highs and lows, comings-of-age matched by fountains of youth, a frenetic jumble of memories.

Jonathan Drouin’s struggles, a galloping Powerhorse, three-on-three debacle after debacle.

Jeff Petry’s eyes, Shea Weber’s hand, Brendan Gallagher’s ... everything.

Cole Caufield’s overtime wizardry, Tyler Toffoli’s return to Vancouver, a Fête Nationale for the ages.

More than anything, maybe, just maybe, this represented the first time in recent memory that a Montreal Canadiens team from top to bottom — managers, coaches, and players — reached their actual potential for a prolonged stretch of time. No matter what people said, this team has had enough talent to make an impact for 10 years now. But something always got in the way: bad coaching, poor special teams, mental collapses, offensive droughts, goaltending lapses, key injuries, bad luck, the New York Rangers. The organization simply could never get everything pointed in the same direction at the same time.

This season showed us what the Canadiens can do when they believe in their own capabilities. If they play to assert rather than to withstand. This season finally showed us a team that, like Bergevin said, is going in the right direction.

So maybe it’s alright that the story lacks a definitive conclusion. After all, the story is just beginning.