The Montreal Canadiens have been about as lucky as a three-leaf clover these 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sure, to the untrained eye it looks as if they’re getting all the breaks, but, ultimately, they’re no different than anyone else… other than how they’re one of the final four teams of a field of 16 and the closest to a championship they’ve been since 1993.
Now one win away from a Stanley Cup Final berth after earning a third win in the third round against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Canadiens are proving doubters wrong. Yours truly included. More to the point, they’ve proven themselves capable of keeping up with the league’s elite in the Golden Knights over the course of a full seven-game series (if the Canadiens don’t end it in six, that is). The only logical conclusion is the Habs are right where they belong.
Canadiens One Win Away from Stanley Cup Final
Admittedly, it’s easy to want to dismiss them out of hand and dwell on singular moments in which fate has stepped in, in their favor. After all, following a 5-0-2 start to the season, the Canadiens struggled to find a semblance of consistency the rest of the way, ending as the No. 4 seeds in the North Division with just 59 points, the lowest amount of any playoff team. In fact, the non-playoff New York Rangers and Dallas Stars each finished above them in the standings. So, how could Canadiens have gotten this far without luck on their side?
For example, one of the instances detractors have pointed to most recently was the misplay by Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 3. It directly led to Josh Anderson’s late game-tying 2-2 goal. The Habs went on to win in overtime (during which Corey Perry got high-sticked without a call, for the record). Many of those same detractors conveniently leave out how Canadiens forward Eric Staal gave the puck up to Knights forward Nicolas Roy right in front of Habs goalie Carey Price earlier in the game, leading to the game-opening goal. Similar circumstances and end result, yet few people are screaming foul there.
Another example frequently given is how the NHL handed out a four-game suspension to Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele in Round 2. The Canadiens were able to take advantage and sweep the Jets, who were unable to generate much offense without their top scorer in the regular season. There’s no denying the Canadiens definitely had an easier time against the Jets than had they been forced to face Scheifele for the last three games of the series. However, making excuses for the Jets is unbecoming for the simple reason that the Canadiens lost a player themselves, Jake Evans, on the same play.
Canadiens Lose Evans for Starters
While Evans isn’t as much of a game-breaker as Scheifele (or a game-breaker at all), he has proven himself to be an effective checking-line forward. More importantly, he’s a person who got charged by Scheifele. That’s not luck. That’s Scheifele making a conscious decision to not play the puck going into the empty net to seal Game 1, instead choosing to skate into someone at full speed. Whether Scheifele had a record or not, it was still a suspension-worthy infraction.
Furthermore, Habs critics also tend to forget how the Canadiens managed to win Game 1 5-3, with Scheifele in the lineup. That they were able to beat the Jets with Scheifele out of the lineup the rest of the way like they were supposed to, for all intents and purposes, shows a killer instinct many believed the Habs didn’t have. It turns out they do. Credit where it’s due.
On the subject of losing players, it’s undeniably true the Maple Leafs lost John Tavares to a freak accident involving Corey Perry in Game 1 of their first-round series. Would the Leafs have been able to beat the Canadiens in their hard-fought seven-game series with an additional weapon up front, especially one of Tavares’ caliber? Quite possibly, however no one will ever know for sure, just like no one will ever know how much of an impact a healthy Jonathan Drouin would have made these playoffs. When it comes down to it, the Canadiens have effectively been down their own top-six forward, since late April.
Sure, Tavares is probably more valuable as an arguable No. 1 center, but it just goes to show that teams must constantly deal with losing players come the playoffs, much like the Canadiens have lost the services of Evans, Jon Merrill and No. 1 defenseman Jeff Petry at different points during the playoffs. The true contenders are the ones who can withstand the losses and still compete.
Canadiens Get Reacquainted with COVID-19
Granted, it wasn’t always that way. While the Canadiens were built as a team with a lot of depth, they succumbed to injuries down the stretch, going 10-13-2 over a 25-game span in 43 nights, losing the likes of Drouin, Price, Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber, Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Paul Byron at various points. None of that is lucky, especially the fact that the Canadiens were forced into such a situation due to the NHL COVID-19 protocol.
It should go without saying, but that head coach Dominique Ducharme is in self-isolation right now after having tested positive himself in the middle of a playoff run is extremely unlucky, especially considering he had just received his second vaccine shot. It’s more so a testament to the Canadiens’ resilience that they’re still not just alive, but also putting in complete-game performances like they did in Games 4 and 5 against the Golden Knights and are now up 3-2 in their series.
The Canadiens may very well not go all the way these playoffs, but any suggestion that they don’t deserve to because of, of all things, luck is an example of willful ignorance to all the adversity they’ve had to face this season, into the playoffs. Yes, the Canadiens have far from been favorites in each of their playoff series so far meaning they’ve never been supposed to win, whatever that means. Look for it to continue as a trend if they are “lucky” enough to reach the Stanley Cup Final. So be it. The more opponents look past them, the more they’re able to take advantage… which is what truly good teams do.
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After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.