TAMPA, Fla. — They weren't supposed to overcome a 3-1 series deficit against the Toronto Maple Leafs. No one saw them sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in four straight. Surely the dazzling speed and powerhouse defence of the glitzy Vegas Golden Knights would be their undoing.
Despite all the doubt, even notwithstanding the dominance of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first three games of the Stanley Cup final, it seemed entirely plausible midway through a thrilling Game 5 that the scrappy Montreal Canadiens might actually pull this thing off.
Even after Bolts' post-season rookies Ross Colton and David Savard combined to confound netminder Carey Price for Wednesday's game-winning and only goal, it was still easy to believe — just as the Habs had been doing all along.
Which is why, when it was finally over, the post-game pain seemed all the more real.
"At the start of the year, we sat down as a group: our goal was to be here, we expected to be here," a crestfallen Brendan Gallagher, the team's spirit animal, said from the Habs locker room as the Bolts took turns spiriting their gleaming prize around the ice for more than 18,000 delirious fans.
"Regardless of what people thought of our team, the expectations were to win this series. So I know we probably surprised a lot of people, but our expectations were to be the team celebrating right now. And that's why it hurts so much."
It was clear from the outset that the Canadiens would have their hands full against the Lightning, a team with so much bench strength that they rarely looked outmatched through the five-game series.
The series against the Knights looked much the same way until the Habs found a way to neutralize that team's daunting defensive attack and get the puck past Vegas goaltender Marc-André Fleury. They had no such luck with the Bolts and Conn Smythe winner Andrei Kasilevskiy, whose name consistently elicited the lustiest cheers at Amalie Arena.
"He's the best," Lightning winger and post-season scoring leader Nikita Kucherov declared of "Vasy" during a shirtless, profanity-laced rant Wednesday that nearly upstaged his team's victory.
"He kept us in the game and another shutout by him. Remarkable."
While the Canadiens were doing their best to keep Kucherov, Brayden Point and the rest of the Lightning snipers stapled to the boards, it fell to Colton and Savard to pick up the slack, which they did in dramatic fashion in the game's 34th minute.
Colton's goal felt eerily reminiscent of Game 2, when a diving Blake Coleman managed to poke the puck past a sprawling Price in the final seconds of the middle frame, utterly deflating a Habs squad that until that point had been skating rings around their rivals.
Game 2 was a turning point against Vegas, too — except that it ended in a 3-2 Habs win and a tied series going into Montreal, where the Knights suddenly lost faith in Fleury, subbed in Robin Lehner and spawned distracting doubts and questions about their goaltending decisions.
No such distractions surfaced for the Lightning and Vasilevskiy, who secured the series win with a shutout for the fifth straight time.
"It's not about me, it's all about our team," Vasilevskiy said, the Conn Smythe Trophy at his elbow suggesting otherwise.
It likely didn't help matters for the Habs that a number of them had been quietly playing through a multitude of injuries, which interim head coach Dominique Ducharme — himself sidelined for weeks by COVID-19 midway through the Vegas series — finally revealed Wednesday.
Turns out captain Shea Weber was nursing an injured thumb, while defender Jeff Petry remained bothered by fingers he damaged in a freak encounter with a camera hole in the glass during the series against Winnipeg. Tyler Toffoli and Gallagher were both playing with groin injuries.
"A lot of guys banged up," Ducharme said in his usual understated style. "But they fought, they bled — they never quit."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2021.