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It's time to stop making excuses for the Montreal Canadiens' success

·5-min read

Last night, the Montreal Canadiens felt unlucky for the very first time. 

Montreal was thoroughly and comprehensively the better side Sunday evening at Bell Centre, producing 100 percent of the regular-time high-danger opportunities toward goal in a game in which the opposition, the Vegas Golden Knights — or the No. 1 seed remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs — were as desperate as they've been for a win, trailing 2-1 in the semifinal series. 

Yet, despite making an elite team look mediocre, the Canadiens failed to capitalize, allowing the Golden Knights to eke out a Game 4 win to even the series and likely save their postseason campaign, scoring with their first opportunity to meet the high-danger threshold 78 seconds into overtime on a goal from local kid Nic Roy.

It is, again maybe for the first time, a result in which fortune didn't favour the Canadiens. And for that reason, and when assessing the complete picture, it would be somewhat of a stretch to suggest that Montreal unequivocally deserves to be one win from reaching the Stanley Cup final, as opposed to where they are now: on even footing with the four remaining teams in the tournament. 

But as Montreal continues on this postseason march, and continues to stand toe-to-toe, now, with a team like the Golden Knights, it's clear that it belongs.

And that we should stop making excuses for the Canadiens' success.

There were many factors shaping our thoughts in the lead-up to this semifinal encounter with Vegas, the most powerful of which being that the Canadiens were, in no uncertain terms, a lousy team over the balance of the regular season. 

They only made the playoffs, it seemed, because three of the worst teams in the entire NHL competed inside their division, and that four teams had to qualify by rule in the league's smallest division by head count. 

Montreal scored and defended at average levels at best, and aside from a fairly high-level possession numbers (which may have had more so to do with the amount of time they spent trailing in games), there were no hints at Montreal being primed for a long and meaningful postseason run.

MONTREAL, QUEBEC - JUNE 20:  Paul Byron #41 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates after scoring a goal past Robin Lehner #90 of the Vegas Golden Knights during the second period in Game Four of the Stanley Cup Semifinals of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bell Centre on June 20, 2021 in Montreal, Quebec. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
We needed to rationalize Montreal's success before. Now we just need to accept that the Canadiens are creating their own fortune. (Getty)

Understanding this, many, including myself, found reasons to rationalize Montreal's success. When John Tavares was lost early in the opening-round series versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, that was the chance element, and something no one could have planned for, that would allow Montreal to establish a passable level of confidence and just enough advantage to squeak by. 

And likewise versus the Winnipeg Jets, when Mark Scheifele took himself out of the series with a vicious hit on Jake Evans, the Canadiens were receiving another unexpected boost (in the loss of the opposition's top centre) to advance beyond a division that was never that strong in the first place. At least we told ourselves.

Incredibly, history continued to repeat itself in the third round as Vegas's top centre, Chandler Stephenson, was lost in between Games 1 and 2, presenting another convenient opportunity to explain Montreal's swelling postseason momentum, while excusing the failures of their opposition. 

Stephenson's loss has no doubt had an obvious and discernible effect. His linemates, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, have been silent without their normal pivot, while coach Pete DeBoer has been experimenting with new line combinations on the fly in effort to uncover the proper mix in his absence. 

That being said, Stephenson's exit hasn't changed the tactics in the series — certainly not to the extent it did in series versus the Maple Leafs and Jets previous. Instead, the assignments remain the same, and the Canadiens have, like they've done in both series to this point, manufactured the sort of shift-to-shift advantages, and in turn results that indicate that the balance of power is once again swinging in their favour.

For a moment neglecting the two necessities of elite goaltending and strong defence, which they have had throughout between Carey Price and the Shea Weber-led defensive corps, it's been depth at the forward position, and something all three of their opponents have lacked, that has driven Montreal's success, not the notable injuries incurred on the opposite side. 

Against the Golden Knights specifically, it's not wrong to suggest that all four Montreal forward lines are winning their matchups — or to speculate that it wouldn't be any different with Stephenson in the fold.

Montreal's shutdown specialist, Phillip Danault, has thrived in far more difficult matchups than what a Stephenson-led top line would present. While elsewhere, the Canadiens' middle six has out-scored their counterparts 7-3, and the Montreal fourth line of Corey Perry, Eric Staal and Joel Armia has torched any bottom-line combination DeBoer has come up with. 

It's these reasons that I'd argue that its Vegas which is fortunate to be in the position it is now in, heading home with the series tied while continuing to rely almost exclusively, and unsustainably, on scoring from the blue line. 

Of course, that would be choosing to ignore the single-most charmed moment of Montreal's postseason run, which was the gift Marc-Andre Fleury left in the crease for Josh Anderson late in Game 3 to reverse a result that was surely headed in Vegas's favour. 

All told, and if we're being honest with ourselves, Montreal is in the exact position it deserves to be in and one it isn't being given proper credit for — which is being two wins from advancing to the Stanley Cup final.

It can't be done without fortune. And it can't be done solely on the back of it. 

Montreal's success has been earned, not given. 

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