This appearance, against an Atlantic Division rival, is unlike any other in Montreal’s venerable history. In this truncated 56-game season, the Canadiens soared, then slumped. They fired their coach, then their goaltending coach a week later. They lost Price and defenseman Shea Weber to injuries, then Joel Armia to a positive coronavirus test that further compressed an already condensed schedule. They played their final 25 games in 44 days and lost 15 of them, including their last five. The playoffs beckoned only because, playing in a one-time division populated by all seven Canadian teams, Montreal was slightly less middling than fifth-place Calgary.
“They are exactly where they thought they would be,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said Monday morning. “They didn’t go the same route, so it looks different because they look like the Cinderella team. But I don’t believe that for a second. And nobody does in our room.”
Montreal’s general manager, Marc Bergevin, is fond of saying that there are players who get you in, and there are players who get you through. He overhauled the roster in the off-season and again at the trade deadline, acquiring six players who have won Stanley Cups, including defenseman Joel Edmundson, the backup goalie Jake Allen, and forwards Eric Staal, Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry.
“You go down the line, that’s really been helpful to our team this year and we want to use that and I think we have,” said Montreal assistant Luke Richardson, who assumed coaching duties after Dominique Ducharme — who replaced Claude Julien as the head coach on Feb. 24 — contracted the coronavirus. (Ducharme missed the last four games in the semifinal round against the Vegas Golden Knights but expects to return for Game 3 in Montreal.) “Maybe all those players didn’t win the Cup last year, but maybe there’s even more drive to get back there to win that Cup and then know this could be one of their last chances. So that’s a good message to pass around the dressing room.”
The Canadiens, given scant time to practice after Ducharme took over, coalesced midway through their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They stunned Toronto in seven games, swept the Winnipeg Jets and throttled Vegas in six, going 7-2 on the road.