The Montreal Canadiens had already left their indelible mark on the 2010 NHL Playoffs. They rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to upset superstar Alex Ovechkin and the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round. The sports world was appropriately stunned, and journalists got to write columns marveling at the upset.
But then the Habs were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions, who have a mega-star of their own in Sidney Crosby. Montreal's 15 seconds of fame in this postseason was up. Order would be restored in the form of a Pittsburgh sweep--maybe a five-game series at the most.
Instead, the Penguins were the latest NHL juggernaut to succumb to a Canadiens team that is simply not willing to lose.
Riding a red-hot goalie and playing with an intensity that befits hockey's proudest franchise, Montreal pulled a near-repeat of its first-round shocker, coming back from a 3-2 hole to overcome the Penguins and getting one step closer to the most improbable Stanley Cup run in the NHL's 85-year history.
Most casual sports fans would recognize the scope of the Canadiens' back-to-back upsets by their No. 8 seed, the lowest in the playoffs. But that doesn't begin to explain how remarkable their postseason run has been.
Five weeks ago today, Montreal was thrashed by the Carolina Hurricanes, 5-2, in the Habs' 81st game of the season. The Canadiens again failed to clinch a playoff spot, and starting goalie Jaroslav Halak played more like a sieve than a netminder.
The Habs backed into the playoffs with an overtime loss to Toronto that earned them the single point they needed. Their reward was a date with the Caps, the odds-on favorites to win their first Stanley Cup.
Historically, no franchise has been more successful in the post-season than Montreal, which has won an eye-popping 24 Cups and made the playoffs 73 times. But the 2010 edition appeared weaker than all but a handful of the 72 that preceded it. And when Washington jumped out to a 3-1 lead, a quiet exit seemed all but assured.
Only the Habs had other ideas. Only Halak decided to channel Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante and become the latest legendary Montreal goalie--at least for a month. Only every Canadien threw themselves in front of pucks with reckless abandon, outhustled the opposition shift after shift and came up with clutch goals in the series' biggest moments.
Three wins later, the Habs were in the second round, where they promptly fell flat in Game 1. Halak allowed five goals on just 20 shots and was unceremoniously pulled midway through the third period. The experts nodded sympathetically: Montreal had expended all its energy in upsetting the Caps, and their playoff run would be commendable but short-lived.
Instead, the Candiens rallied to tie the series at 1-1, then 2-2, then 3-3. Each time it appeared Pittsburgh had the series in hand, Halak would make a spectacular save, or left winger Mike Cammelleri would find a way to get a momentum-changing goal, or the Canadiens would wear down the Penguins with the simplest of tactics: an unerring refusal to give up.
By Game 7, Montreal had become a city of true believers. Habs fans flooded into the Bell Centre to watch the game on the JumboTron, while their team jumped out to a 4-0 lead in Pittsburgh. Halak was brilliant once again, saving 37 of 39 shots to improve his playoff save percentage to a sizzling .933. Brian Gionta notched two power-play goals, Cammelleri added a score, and a Canadiens squad that five weeks ago was an NHL afterthought spent the last minute of the series graciously declining to shoot while on the power play. It was that lopsided a win.
With the 5-2 victory, the Habs advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, where they will face either the Philadelphia Flyers or Boston Bruins. It remains to be seen if Halak can continue his lights-out goaltending, or if the Canadiens have enough inspired performances left to capture their 25th Stanley Cup and first since 1993.
But whether the Habs win eight more playoff games or zero, their remarkable run has galvanized a city and sent a message to the hockey world: Don't sleep on the Montreal Canadiens.