MONTREAL — Shea Weber and his teammates gathered around the Clarence Campbell Bowl for a celebratory picture.

They also didn't dare touch the trophy.

The Montreal Canadiens, after all, have a much bigger goal in their sights.

A roster of players not given a chance by almost everyone outside their four walls at the start of the playoffs following a difficult season with too many twists and turns to count had just punched an improbable ticket to the Stanley Cup final.

And all they're focused on is pushing forward — not looking back.

"We've got to win four more games," Weber, Montreal's stern-faced captain, said in the wake of Thursday's thrilling 3-2 overtime victory against the Vegas Golden Knights that pushed Montreal into its first title series since 1993. "Proud of everybody in that locker-room right now and what we've accomplished.

"But definitely still work to be done."

Even the youngest player on the team, a flashy 20-year-old sniper coming off a four-goal performance in the third round, quickly turned his attention to the Canadiens' next mountain to climb.

"There's a bigger one out there that we're chasing," Cole Caufield said when asked about not grasping the semifinal trophy.

So how did they get here? How did so many get this team so wrong?

In short, the Canadiens are in this position through hard work, belief, commitment to structure and each other, strong — sometimes exceptional goaltending — and like all teams that get this far, a bit of luck.

"Everybody in the city is obviously ecstatic," said netminder Carey Price, who's 12-5 with a .934 save percentage in the playoffs. "It's a fun time to be in Montreal."

That wasn't the case a little over four weeks ago.

Following a winter and early spring of strict COVID-19 rules across Quebec, the Canadiens were on the ropes down 3-1 in the first round against the powerhouse Toronto Maple Leafs — 18 points clear of Montreal in the North Division standings — before rallying for a seven-game victory.

They then made quick work of the Winnipeg Jets, another group expected to roll past the Canadiens, with a sweep before the just-completed conquering of Vegas, which finished second in the league.

"An exciting time," Weber said. "We're happy to still be playing."

But there also wasn't a ton of a excitement around the team four months ago either in a 56-game campaign that started with high expectations after a surprising run in last summer's playoff bubble and some high-profile acquisitions.

Montreal fired head coach Claude Julien in February, suffered a COVID-19 outbreak in March, dealt with key injuries down the stretch to limp into the post-season as the 16th and final seed, and then lost interim bench boss Dominique Ducharme against the Golden Knights after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

"Is that all?" Canadiens assistant coach Luke Richardson, in the big chair with Ducharme sidelined, said with a grin when all the trials and tribulations were listed off following the Game 6 victory over Vegas. "Everything seems to be going so fast."

Montreal will meet the defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who edged the New York Islanders 1-0 in Game 7 of their semifinal on Friday to advance.

"Means everything to me," Caufield, the five-foot-seven, No. 15 pick at the 2019 NHL draft, said of making the Cup final as a rookie. "But it means everything to the team. These guys have been playing for a while. This opportunity doesn't come around very often. Playing for these older guys and guys that have been here for a while is probably the biggest thing.

"I'm just trying to take it all in and enjoy the moment."

The Golden Knights, meanwhile, are left to pick up the pieces.

The largest betting favourite in a third-round NHL series in three decades, Vegas has enjoyed tremendous success since coming into the league, including a Cup berth in its expansion 2017 year and back-to-back final-four appearances, but is once again searching for answers.

"I got skunked this series. That can't happen," said Vegas winger Mark Stone, who like many of the team's offensive catalysts was stymied at every turn by Montreal. "I'm the captain of this team, the leader of this team.

"I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred."

Back on the other side, Ducharme, who continues to self-isolate away from the Canadiens, got to enjoy a bit of the moment, albeit virtually, with his players and coaches Thursday.

"I fist-bumped him on the video screen," Richardson said. "I don't know if we actually got it connected, but it was pretty close.

"He was definitely very excited and happy."

Thursday's winning goal, scored by Artturi Lehkonen, was a perfect example of how the Canadiens have continued to surprise under Ducharme and, more recently, Richardson's watch.

The shutdown line of Lehkonen, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher — so strong in neutralizing the opposition's top threats throughout the playoffs, but unable to find the back of the net in the Vegas series before Game 6's decisive moment — started with a defensive zone faceoff.

Price fought off a point shot up high before Gallagher raced the other way on a quick counter and fed Danault in the neutral zone. The centre then slid a no-look pass to Lehtonen, who buried the clincher to set off wild celebrations for the 3,500 fans at the Bell Centre, and the thousands more in the streets outside the arena.

"They don't get enough credit," Weber said of the checking trio. "For them to get a goal for us to move on, it's awesome.

"I feel great for them."

Just like the emotions of a fan base looking for its 25th Cup — and Canada's first since Montreal's last triumph in 1993 — in a spring, and now summer, to remember.

"This is awesome," Caufield said. "I love the fans. I wish it was a packed building, but the people we do let in, they've been unbelievable.

"Hopefully we can keep making them happy."

Of course, the Canadiens are becoming a big story across the country. Game 6 was the most-watched game of the series with an average minute audience of 3.7 million viewers on Sportsnet and CBC, a Sportsnet spokeswoman said in an email.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2021.


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