Montreal Canadiens advance to their first Stanley Cup Final in 28 Years

The Montreal Canadiens advanced to their first Stanley Cup Final in 28 years. They did it last night in dramatic fashion by defeating the Golden Knights 3-2 in overtime of Game Six before 3,500 screaming Habs fans at Bell Centre.

Artturi Lehkonen scored at 1:39 of sudden death to complete the stirring upset of the heavily favored Knights in six games. The series clincher came on a perfect counter play up the ice from the reliable checking line that features center Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher and Lehkonen. The trio have successfully shutdown Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and now completely shutout Vegas star Mark Stone in the Stanley Cup Semifinal.

It was fitting that the low scoring defensive line would be the one to punch Montreal’s ticket to their first Stanley Cup appearance since winning the chalice in 1993. Coincidentally, they’re the last Canadian team to win the Cup. Now, they’ll aim to bring Lord Stanley back to Canada and win a record 25th Cup.

What a story it would be. After struggling for most of the second half without Carey Price, the Canadiens figured it out just in time by climbing out of a 3-1 first round series deficit to upset the Maple Leafs. They never trailed in the last three games and carried that momentum forward by sweeping Winnipeg in the North Division Finals. That set up the Stanley Cup Semifinal against powerful Vegas. However, the Habs proved they belonged by winning twice at T-Mobile Arena including a convincing 4-1 win in Game Five.

With a chance to clinch last night, they twice took leads against the Golden Knights. First on a Shea Weber power play goal. But Reilly Smith was able to tip in a Shea Theodore pass for the quick reply. In the second period, rookie sensation Cole Caufield continued to wow observers by blowing past Brayden McNabb and roofing a shot past the glove of Robin Lehner to make it 2-1. The former Wisconsin standout who won the Hobey Baker scored four goals in the series. He looks like he’s going to make some general managers regret passing on him in the 2019 NHL Draft. He fell to number 15 where the Canadiens were only too pleased to scoop him up. After spending two years in college, Caufield looks poised to light up opponents’ nets for years.

Speaking of making teams pay, Nick Suzuki did in the team that took him in the first round. Sent to Montreal with Tomas Tatar for Max Pacioretty, who’s been a very good player for Vegas, Suzuki got the better of the match-up highlighted by a three-point Game Five. He centers Caufield and Tyler Toffoli, who has been a bargain after signing with Montreal. That top line has been instrumental in why the Habs will play for the Cup.

To their credit, the Knights didn’t quit. They played a very good third period. In fact, Alec Martinez was able to get to a loose puck of an Alex Pietrangelo shot and beat Price through the five-hole to tie the score at 1:08. But despite an edge in play with a few good scoring chances to go ahead and possibly force a Game Seven back at the Fortress, Vegas couldn’t find another goal past the brick wall known as Price. He’s been lights out during this special run. When his team needed him most, he came through by making 14 of 15 saves in a busy third. For the game, Price finished with 37 total including one more denial on Martinez that led to the transition up ice for the Lehkonen winner.

Following a strong Price save on a high Martinez shot, out came Gallagher with the puck to center ice where he led a three-on-two rush. After moving the puck for an attacking Danault, the center made a great pass across for a quick Lehkonen one-timer past Lehner into the top portion of the net. It happened that quickly. This is what the goal looked like along with the reaction of the crowd at Bell Centre.

Some have called the Habs’ run improbable. It is. It was unexpected. However, this was a roster many thought would contend in the new North Division. They got off to a good start under former coach Claude Julien. But soon, they slumped and really struggled mightily. Eventually, it led to Julien’s dismissal. Interim coach Dominique Ducharme took over. They weren’t any better under him going 15-16-7 following a 9-5-4 record under Julien. However, they had to play without Price, who was concussed. Jonathan Drouin also had off ice issues and opted out. Key players missed time including Gallagher, Weber and Ben Chiarot.

Interestingly, even without Price, backup Jake Allen won enough to get them into the playoffs by beating out Calgary by four points. Caufield got into 10 games and scored four times. Trade deadline acquisition Eric Staal looked finished only scoring twice and going minus-10. GM Marc Bergevin also added Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson to a blue line that included Weber, Jeff Petry, Chiarot and Joel Edmundson, who was a good pickup last winter. Along with top finisher and scorer Toffoli, they were good moves by Bergevin, whose job was on the line. Now here they are two months later awaiting tonight’s Game Seven winner between the Islanders and Lightning.

How big is Montreal being back in their 34th ever Stanley Cup Final? Here was some reaction from some fans including two who were there to witness the magical scene.

Seeing the amazing excitement of an overjoyed loyal fan base that has waited a long time to see their team get back to the Stanley Cup Final brings a smile to my face. Even if you aren’t a fan of the Canadiens, how can you not feel happy for them? Unless you’re from Toronto, I understand. I know what that’s like. Our father never thought he’d ever see the Rangers win a Cup. Now, it’s the Maple Leaf fans going through a 54-year curse of their own. Technically, 53 seasons. But still. That’s insane. They haven’t won since 1967. Also the last time they beat the Canadiens. Yikes.

I think both Christina and Jess in their emotional reactions summed up what every Habs fan was feeling in that moment. It’s one I got to experience with my Dad, brother and friend on a hot May summer night at Madison Square Garden in 2014. Ironically, it came against Montreal in a Game Six. It was surreal. Everybody went crazy in that memorable moment. There were hugs, high fives, tears of joy, thunderous applause and fireworks inside the building. It was the best moment ever as a sports fan for me personally. I didn’t go to any Yankees games in the 90’s. The Rangers are our number one team. If they ever won another Cup, that would be priceless. Hopefully, one day it’ll be them.

I also got a kick out of the Clarence Campbell Trophy being presented to Weber and the Canadiens. Usually, it would be the Prince of Wales Trophy. Due to circumstances, it was the Campbell which the team didn’t touch and took a picture with. A poignant moment. Most teams won’t touch that trophy due to superstition. For them, the job isn’t done. They’ve won 12 games. Not 16. The mission is 16. The goal is the Stanley Cup. The holy grail of trophies.

Congratulations to the Habs and their great fans. Now, they find out in a few hours who they’ll play.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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