As I have every game day for over a month now, I arrived at my cigar lounge over an hour before game time. I was wearing my Habs jersey and cap; I hung my Habs flag on the door; I got a tumbler for the bottle of single malt whisky I brought (last night it was Loch Lomond), and I selected my first cigar of the evening (a 2017 Hoyo de Monterrey Magnum 54). When the Canadian national anthem was sung, I stood and saluted. When the American national anthem was sung, I removed my cover and held it over my heart. It was only after the puck dropped that I lit my cigar and poured my first dram.
I followed the exact same patterns and rituals as I had for every game that I have been able to watch in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. The only changes were the whisky and the cigar. I wore my official team jersey (a birthday present from an ex-girlfriend… possibly the only birthday present I have received as an adult that I still use). I wore my team cap that I purchased some months ago to ‘represent’ on the golf course. Nothing had changed.
The tides had changed.
As I have written in this space several times over the past month, Les Canadiens de Montreal were not supposed to even make the playoffs. They clinched their berth (lowest berth) on the final day of the regular season. They were supposed to be swept by Toronto – the top team in the Northern Division – and were down 3-1… only to come back and beat the Maple Leafs in seven games. They were supposed to lose in the second round to Winnipeg, but they swept the Jets in four straight games. They were definitely not supposed to beat Las Vegas… and they beat the Golden Knights in six games.
Every emotional Habs fan was saying at this point how improbable it had been for us to get that far, comparing this squad to the 1993 Stanley Cup Champions. Every honest fan knew that even in Las Vegas we had not faced a squad as strong as these Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tampa, the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, who would come into the Stanley Cup Finals $18 Million over the league’s salary cap, but who would have been a powerhouse team even without cheating, were the team to beat. More accurately, they were the team that few suspected Montreal could beat.
We lost the first three games before coming back to win Game 4 in overtime. I did not want to be the one to jinx things, but to date the Montreal Canadiens had never been swept 4-0 in a Stanley Cup Finals round… and this was their 33rd appearance in the SCF during the NHL era. Because of superstition I did not write about it… I did not mention it. I just hoped and prayed, and when Josh Anderson scored the winning goal in overtime of Game Four I screamed, I jumped for joy, and I let out a long sigh of relief.
The series returned to Florida for Game 5, and as they had every game thus far Les Canadiens played their hearts out. Netminder Carey Price was almost perfect, allowing only one goal on 30 shots. Unfortunately, The Lightning played their hearts out too… and their netminder Andre Vasilevskiy was perfect, stopping all 22 shots that he faced.
The Montreal Canadiens walked off the ice without hoisting the cup… but not as losers. They were not only a team that went further into the playoffs than anyone honestly would have predicted, they also showed tremendous class, staying on the ice to shake the hands of the victorious Lightning.
I am sure that every fan of the Montreal Canadiens is sad that our team lost. While I will not speak for every fan on this, I know that I for one am extremely grateful for what they did. How they got to where they did I do not know… and while I would have loved to see them hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup, at no point in this series (or during their entire playoffs run) did they disappoint me.
In the face of four stronger teams, including one that cheated on the salary cap, and facing hostile and one-sided officiating throughout, our boys persevered. They went into the playoffs sixteenth in the standings… and finished second. This lifelong fan cheers them and salutes them. Looking at their faces, many of which have been bloodied by Tampa Bay and Las Vegas players, on which the stitches are still fresh and the scars will be long-lasting, we see pride… well-deserved and certainly earned.
Thank you to everyone on the Montreal Canadiens lineup for taking us, the fans, as far as you did. It was an amazing run, and we thank you for it.
Rest up over the summer… we’ll see you back in September!