The noble spirit of hope embiggens the smallest man, or the most unlikely of playoff teams. The Montreal Canadiens finished 18th overall in the NHL, limping into the final North Division playoff spot with next to no time left in the season. Their reward was a first-round meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a series where the running joke was “Leafs in 3.”
Then they won Game 1 on the heels of an incredible Paul Byron goal, and the seed of hope was planted.
Then, that seed was buried under layers of dirt and doubt as Montreal stumbled over itself while falling behind three games to one in the series. Yet, that seed, despite all the things piled on top of it began to grow, slowly, but surely.
Game 5 was capped off with the future of the franchise connecting on a two-on-one in overtime to keep their dreams alive. Game 6 saw their franchise cornerstone steal a game in overtime before the third overall pick scored an improbable goal, at home, in front of the first fans allowed in Canada in over a year. Then in Game 7, that seed poked its way out of the ground to start growing as the Habs completed the comeback (or the Leafs blew a 3-1 series lead, all depends on your narrative).
Waiting for them was the Winnipeg Jets, a team that had given them fits all year, and boasted arguably the best goalie in the game in Connor Hellebuyck. The Habs laughed at that, blasting the Jets out of the water in one of the most lopsided series in the last decade, and yet some people didn’t yet believe.
In Round 3, the Vegas Golden Knights were supposed to crush the Habs. They were deeper, better at every single spot, and had all the experience in the world. The Golden Knights even bodied the Habs in Game 1, and then Dominique Ducharme tested positive for Covid, putting an interim, interim head coach behind the bench against a Stanley Cup favourite.
Then they won, and then they won again with a huge assist from Marc-Andre Fleury and an even bigger game from Carey Price. Montreal stomped Vegas in Game 5, then in Game 6, in front of 3,500 screaming fans, the Habs made the Stanley Cup Final.
That small seed of hope was a full-grown flower at this point. The Canadiens, their fans, their coaches, and everyone around Quebec were feeling as optimistic as ever.
“Feels like ‘93” was thrown around all over social media, and they had one task left: defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Game 1, was bad, but it was also terrible in the Vegas series and that all turned out just fine, right?
In Game 2, the team was so much better, dominating Tampa Bay for long stretches, and it felt like the goals were coming at any moment. But they never did, and two momentary mental lapses ended up behind Carey Price to seal their fate. The petals are now slowly falling to the ground, but the plant is still standing tall, the team is playing just fine, and on home ice they can control the matchups. Plenty of hope still, this series isn’t over yet!
Then Game 3 happened, where even when things went right for the Habs, they immediately went wrong right afterward. Price was human, and the mental lapses killed the momentum the offence finally got going.
The series isn’t over, but it feels like a foregone conclusion at this point. That hope which spurred the fanbase through the dark parts of the previous rounds has been weaponized against those believing in the team. It feels crushing to have the season end like this, even if it isn’t the end of the world to lose to quite literally the best team in the NHL, that’s how life is sometimes.
I’ve said it a lot that after the Leafs series that every game and round won was just gravy, because Montreal was never meant to get out of Round 1 at all. But they did, and started playing legitimately great hockey against Winnipeg and Vegas. It gave so much hope that this team could possibly do something so certifiably insane that it only made sense for it to happen in the shortened, realigned 2021 NHL season.
Now all that hope has begun to wilt.
The series isn’t yet over, and we can be proud of what the team put together, proving so many doubters wrong in the playoffs while building up their young stars for the next step in their careers. But it’s hard to predict when the team will be back here again.
Hope is a funny, fickle thing. It’s what made this whole playoff run so much fun, but it’s also what’s making these past few games sting so badly.