In 1983, the North Carolina State Wolfpack were the 16th overall seed, and sixth in their region, in the then-48-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In the tournament’s single elimination format, they beat every team they played en route to the championship, including the number one team in the country in the final.
Their coach Jim Valvano’s motto from that tournament has become lore: “Survive and advance.”
It’s a perfect motto that encompasses the absurdity of any pressure situation, but putting it in actionable terms. Heading into Monday’s Game 4, all the Montreal Canadiens said was that they wanted to go back to Tampa. Now that they are going, their goal is to bring it back to Montreal for Game 6.
“Nothing’s been easy for us all year,” said Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher. “It wasn’t going to start this series. We’re definitely aware of the challenge but every little bit of adversity we’ve faced this year we’ve handled well. We got through tonight but we can’t really afford to enjoy it for too long. Move on to the next one and do the same thing. We’ve kind of accepted the fact it’s never going to be easy.”
He was asked about the team’s big penalty kill in the final minute of regulation and the first three minutes of overtime. He couldn’t help but smile throughout his answer.
“We approached the penalty kill the same way we approached the game,” Danault said. “Our backs were against the wall, the wind in our face, just living the present and playing as hard as we can every shift.”
The task in front of them is overwhelming. Just to get the series back to Montreal for Game 6, they need to beat a team for the second straight game. That team they have to beat hasn’t lost two straight games in the playoffs since 2019. It seems absurd to even think about the possibility of this comeback. The odds are, they will lose one of the next three games.
The thing is, everything about this post-season run has been absurd. Sure, the playoff run is deserved but when you’re in it, you don’t think about the big picture. When you’re in it, it’s just one game.
The 2004 Boston Red Sox comeback against the New York Yankees from 3-0 down in the series started with a win in extra innings. In 2010, the Philadelphia Flyers started their comeback against the Boston Bruins from 3-0 down with an overtime win.
Most playoff runs have some sort of absurdity to them. 1986? Absurd. 1993? Absurd.
This team didn’t win more than three straight games the entire regular season and their only way to win the Stanley Cup is to do it a second time in the playoffs. Absurd.
“We have no intention of stopping here,” Canadiens interim head coach Dominique Ducharme said. “We’re going to go to Tampa and come back to play one last game here.”
Now the path to Game 5 includes flying into a tropical storm.
“It’s no surprise anymore,” Ducharme said on Tuesday morning. “Anything that happens now, we just take it and look at it and say it’s probably part of our destiny. It’s been crazy, but we’re a crazy bunch of guys in here and we’re going to take that challenge.”
Survive and advance, indeed.