Brendan Gallagher‘s tears during his postgame press conference Wednesday symbolized how much the Montreal Canadiens thought they could win the Stanley Cup when most others didn’t.
The forward welled up pondering the wasted opportunity after the Canadiens lost 1-0 in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final at the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won their second consecutive championship. Gallagher had heard many suggestions that the Canadiens should be satisfied to have made it this far.
He was having none of it.
“I take nothing out of moral victories,” Gallagher said. “At the start of the year we sat down as a group. Our goal is to be here. We expected to be here.”
Gallagher said the loss may prove beneficial.
“As painful as this is right now, sometimes you need to feel this to be able to call yourself a champion,” he said. “I wish it wasn’t the case. Maybe this is the journey we needed. It stings for sure, but you take more from a loss than you do from a win. If we’re able to learn from this experience, maybe the positive side, we can be better off. But right now, I don’t know what to tell you, it stinks.”
It will take time for the Canadiens to get over the pain of coming up short in the Cup Final. But the belief that helped Montreal, the last of the 16 teams to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, defeat the favored Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights in the first three rounds, should be a rallying point from here.
It will have to be. No Stanley Cup runner-up has reached the Final the following season since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in seven games after losing to them in six games in 2008.
The path back could be more difficult because the NHL plans to return to its usual alignment next season, meaning the Canadiens will be back in the Atlantic Division after playing this season in the Scotia North Division that included the seven teams based in Canada.
The Atlantic will include four other teams that made the playoffs this season: the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers. But Montreal showed it has the pieces to be a legitimate Cup contender.
Gallagher, 29; defenseman Shea Weber, 35; and goalie Carey Price, 33, form the veteran backbone and should be hungrier than ever. They’ll complement promising young players Nick Suzuki, a 21-year-old forward who led the Canadiens with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 22 playoff games; 20-year-old forward Cole Caufield, who scored 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 20 playoff games and set an NHL rookie postseason record by assisting on three overtime goals; and 21-year-old forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who scored eight points (five goals, three assists) in 19 playoff games and has a bright future despite being a healthy scratch for the last two games of the Final.
Perhaps the easiest decision should be to retain Dominique Ducharme as coach. He was promoted when Claude Julien was fired Feb. 24, and the success in the playoffs showed the Canadiens were buying into his plan.
Much like the players believed in each other, they believed in Ducharme’s never-say-die attitude. The Canadiens were 6-1 in overtime games, 4-1 when facing the end of a series, and echoed his confidence that they could go all the way.
“I’m proud of this group,” Ducharme said. “I told the guys after the game: We had to go through a lot of things, and you talk about practice, you talk about injuries, scheduling, COVID, even through the playoffs, being down, being up. Many things. And we kept moving forward. We kept getting better. So we grew as a team a lot.
“We’ve got to use that the right way. And we want to make it back here with a different result.”