TAMPA — The Montreal Canadiens have the right attitude entering the 2021 Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We believe that we aren’t the underdog,” assistant coach Luke Richardson said Sunday on Stanley Cup Final media day.
But make no mistake: The Canadiens are the underdogs. By some measures, they are underdogs of historic proportions.
That does not mean they cannot upset the defending Stanley Cup champions in the best-of-7 series, which begins with Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
But it adds context to their quest and will make it even more special if they win the Cup for the first time since 1993.
The Canadiens went 24-21-11 in the regular season, which was shortened from 82 to 56 games and played entirely within temporarily realigned divisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though they finished fourth in the Scotia North Division, securing the last Stanley Cup Playoff spot in the North, they finished 18th in the 31-team NHL. They were behind two teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs: the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars.
Their points percentage was .527.
The Canadiens fell behind the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 in the Stanley Cup First Round, but they defeated the Maple Leafs in seven games and swept the Winnipeg Jets in the second round.
They defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in six games in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, the same Vegas Golden Knights who won the most games (40) and tied the Colorado Avalanche for the most points (82) in the regular season.
And now here they are.
“We’re not here by accident,” general manager Marc Bergevin said. “But we realize that we do have a lot of work ahead of us.”
- Montreal is the eighth team to finish in the bottom half of the NHL and reach the Cup Final since the League expanded from six teams to 12 in 1967-68. None of the previous seven won the Cup.
- The Canadiens are the second team in the expansion era to reach the Cup Final as the lowest-ranked playoff team, after the 2016-17 Nashville Predators, who finished 16th and lost in the Cup Final in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
- They are the second team in NHL history to finish the regular season 18th or lower and make the Cup Final, after the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers, who finished 18th and lost in the Cup Final in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. (Philadelphia wasn’t the lowest-ranked playoff team that season; Montreal finished 19th and made the playoffs, losing to the Flyers in five games in the Eastern Conference Final.)
Now consider this:
- Montreal is one of 21 teams in NHL history with a regular-season points percentage of .527 or lower to make the Cup Final, but the first since 1999-2000, when the League began awarding a point for an overtime loss.
- If the Canadiens win the Cup, they will be the champion with the lowest regular-season points percentage since the 1948-49 Maple Leafs, who finished fourth in a six-team NHL with a points percentage of .475. (Even that is a little deceiving, because the Maple Leafs had won the Cup each of the previous two years and three of the previous four.)
It’s fair to point out that the Canadiens aren’t necessarily the same team they were in the regular season, especially early in the regular season, or even the same team they were at the start of the playoffs.
They replaced Claude Julien as coach with Dominique Ducharme on Feb. 24, acquired center Eric Staal from the Buffalo Sabres on March 27, and signed forward Cole Caufield out of the University of Wisconsin on March 29.
Forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the No. 3 pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, did not play in the playoff opener against Toronto. Caufield, the No. 15 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, did not play in the first two games of that series. Each has been important since. Caufield has scored nine points (four goals, five assists), and Kotkaniemi has scored seven (five goals, two assists).
Richardson credited Ducharme for changing the mentality.
“You know, we belong here,” Richardson said. “Believe in ourselves. [Have a] not-going-to-take-no-for-an-answer type of attitude.”
Richardson and Bergevin each credited the players, especially veterans like captain Shea Weber.
“You can see the confidence that it’s building in this dressing room and within the team culture itself, let alone the organization and the coaching staff or management,” Richardson said. “It’s just the players. It’s great to see them taking charge and really taking advantage of maybe a once-in-a-lifetime situation for themselves.”
Montreal has stymied offensive teams in the playoffs by taking away the middle, relying on goalie Carey Price, pouncing on turnovers and counterattacking.
“Everyone’s just buying in and doing all the little things,” forward Tyler Toffoli said. “It’s hard to do in a full season, but the way we’re playing and the things we’re doing right now, it’s back over top, take the time and space away, all those things we talk about every single day, and it’s just, it’s paying off for us right now.”
But the Canadiens now face the defending champs, who just won a seven-game semifinal series against the New York Islanders, a team that plays a similar style.
And as if that weren’t enough, Ducharme is out for at least the first two games due to the NHL COVID-19 protocol. Forward Joel Armia was listed as unavailable due to the protocol Sunday.
The Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup 23 times since the NHL was born in 1917, 10 more than the next team, the Maple Leafs. But if they win this time, it will be unlike any of their other championships.
“This is the big stage,” Bergevin said. “We’re facing a very good hockey team, and I’m confident that our guys will rise to the occasion.”