Still Talkin’ Habs: Be proud of your Montreal Canadiens

This is the end. Beautiful friends.

The Montreal Canadiens gave everything they had, but the Tampa Bay Lightning proved to be one too many hills to climb, defeating the Habs 1-0 in Game 5 Wednesday night to be named back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

This isn’t a time for player ratings. This is a time to celebrate the most impressive group of Habs any of us have seen in more than two decades.

Could Jesperi Kotkaniemi have helped spark more offence to get that single crucial goal to send the game to overtime? Possibly.

Could a heinous powerplay have done more to give the Canadiens some momentum on the road while chasing the game? Sure.

Could more than 3,500 fans have been allowed in the Bell Center? Could the Lightning have been cap-compliant? Could. Could. Could…

You can drive yourself mad doing that.

I’ve often asked, throughout the season, what your expectations were for the 2021 version of the Montreal Canadiens?

Don’t lie. It wasn’t this.

As I’ve said before, my expectations were for the Habs to win a playoff round.

For the youngsters to get some much-needed playoff experience.

For the veterans to prove that they could elevate their game at the most important time of the season.

For Carey Price to show once again that he can be one of the best in the world when he's on.

The Canadiens answered those questions emphatically. With flying colours and then some.

To beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Winnipeg Jets and the Las Vegas Golden Knights to get to the Cup final was remarkable in and of itself.

They were all teams picked ahead of the Canadiens to be Stanley Cup favourites.

But they were cast aside on the Habs remarkable run to the biggest stage of them all.

For 20 years, the Habs have been the poster boys for mediocrity in the NHL.

Finishing between seventh and 11th place in the standings, picking between 13th and 18th at the draft.

Throw in an unlikely playoff run or division-winning season here and there, a team that overachieves and punches above their weight but whose collective skill eventually let them down in the big moment.

The 2021 Canadiens run may have been unlikely and unforeseen. But what the Habs proved over four rounds is that it had more to do with timing than it did talent.

It was all just a bit too soon for this group.

Just ask Tampa Bay, who endured multiple years of playoff heartbreak before getting the formula staggeringly right these past two seasons.

What the Habs aren’t anymore is just a middle-of-the-pack hockey team.

They crashed an 18-wheeler of excitement through the gates of the Bell Center to open their Cup window, breaking glass à la Stone Cold Steve Austin.

The Canadiens are a force to be reckoned with in the NHL again. That's what this run has revealed to all of us.

Look at the core of this team going forward and try not to be optimistic.

Nick Suzuki is a bona fide number one center in the NHL.

Cole Caufield hasn’t played more than 10 games in the regular season, but is already a star in the making.

Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson give the Habs two reliable goal-scoring veterans they haven’t had in years.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi joined a list of names that include Gretzky for playoff goal-scoring exploits before their 21st birthday.

Jake Evans arrived as a potential shutdown center for the team for years to come.

Brendan Gallagher continues to be the soul of this team.

Shea Weber elevated his game big time in the playoffs.

If not for a misplaced hole in the glass, who knows if Jeff Petry could have carried over his regular-season form into the latter stages of the postseason.

Joel Edmundson is a steal at $3.5 million.

Alexander Romanov is a stud in waiting.

And Price is still the same incredible goaltender he has been for this franchise for more than a decade.

This is the making of a team that means we won’t have to wait another 28 years to be in the Stanley Cup final once again.

There might be the making of a championship roster somewhere in there.

Now comes the hard part of picking and choosing who you surround that core with, starting as early as a few weeks from now for General Manager Marc Bergevin.

Phillip Danault has been outstanding for the Canadiens to get to this point. He is clearly extremely valuable to this team, but at what cost?

Could less than $5 million on a long-term deal make sense for him? Or is he still set on earning more than that annually?

Joel Armia played like a man possessed in the playoffs. But can you trust him enough to give him more than $4 million on a three or four-year contract? I don’t think you can.

Do you sign Corey Perry to more than a one-year deal or does he believe that he has a better chance of winning his last Stanley Cup somewhere else?

How much do RFA’s like Kotkaniemi and Artturi Lehkonen cost? All with the knowledge that a puck-moving defenceman who can quarterback the powerplay is your most glaring need this summer. And they don’t come cheap.

It will have to be another offseason of magic and wizardry from the Canadiens front office.

I know, it might be a bit too soon to get caught up in all of the minutiae of what’s to come for the Habs.

Especially after everything the fans have gone through with this group.

Sink into the memories of this roller coaster of a year.

The adversity this group overcame. A coaching change. Jonathan Drouin having to leave the team for personal reasons.

The most hellacious schedule in NHL history. Backing into the playoffs on a five-game losing streak.

Going down 3-1 to the Leafs in Round 1.

Dominique Ducharme getting COVID in Round 3.

Luke Richardson stepping in behind the bench.

Now, remember the incredible moments of joy you experienced with your son or daughter, husband or wife, friends or family, near or far.

Paul Byron’s game-winner from his knees. Caufield and Suzuki’s 2-on-0. Kotkaniemi’s OT snipe. Toffoli’s series clincher against the Jets. Lehkonen sending the Habs to the Cup final. The multitude of heroic saves Price made along the way.

Those are memories that will live on for a long time in the minds of whichever generation of Habs fans you belong to.

These are moments in time that will appear infinite as the years go by.

So, cherish them. For now.

Something tells me there is a whole new batch of playoff memories coming in the not-too-distant future.

The Montreal Canadiens will be back vying for the ultimate prize soon enough.

And they won’t be leaving without the Stanley Cup.   

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