The Montreal Canadiens are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993. Montreal defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 6 at home in overtime on Thursday to continue its improbable run.
No Canadian team has hoisted the Stanley Cup since Montreal won in 1993. Few predicted the Habs would be the last Canadian team standing this year. Ahead of the postseason, Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill listed Montreal at +3500 to win the Cup.
Montreal had the worst regular-season record (.527 points percentage) of any team in the playoff field.
"Honestly, we wouldn't be here right now if we didn't believe," goaltender Carey Price said. "We always kind of stuck with it, not doubting ourselves."
The last Canadian team to reach the Stanley Cup Final was the 2011 Vancouver Canucks. Before this current 28-year title drought, the longest the NHL had gone without awarding a Stanley Cup to a Canadian team was a six-year stretch between 1936 to 1941.
The Canadiens have won an NHL-record 24 Stanley Cups. They will face the winner of Friday's Game 7 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Final, which will begin on Monday.
"Everything seems to be moving so fast right now. It's really fun to see the guys enjoying themselves in the dressing room, they deserve it. It's really heartwarming to see a group of guys that work that hard together," interim coach Luke Richardson said. "I know every team is the same and says the same thing, but these guys are a special group and a really good mix. It's hard to put into words how proud we are of them, but they deserve it and they're not done yet. Like, they still have fire in their eyes, they're already talking about it."
Phillip Danault set up Lehkonen for the game-winning goal -- appropriate since they are part of Montreal's shutdown line that stifled Vegas all series.
"They do so much blocking shots on the penalty kill. Phil was great in the faceoff circle once again," Richardson said. "This is the time of the year that real, playoff battlers come alive and those two guys have really shown through. It was fitting for our team, the way we play -- we play hard defensively, and try to do all the right things defensively -- it was fitting for them to get the winning goal."
Closing out Vegas in Game 6 was an extra reason for celebration, as the game fell on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, one of Quebec's biggest holidays. After the game, fans inside the Bell Center were asked to stay inside until the massive crowd outside dispersed.
"I'm excited for those that were lucky enough to be in the building," Price said. "Everybody in the city is obviously ecstatic. It's a fun time to be in Montreal right now."
The Canadiens won three straight elimination games against the high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round to complete a stunning comeback. Montreal then swept the Jets in the second round.
Even after reaching the semifinals, the Habs had to overcome obstacles. They missed one of their top defensemen, Jeff Petry, in Game 1. Montreal's home games at the Bell Center had 3,500 fans while Vegas' T-Mobile Arena was rocking with nearly 18,000. The Canadiens were also without their head coach, Dominique Ducharme, the last four games of the series because he is isolating after positive COVID-19 tests.
Ducharme has been chatting via video with the team throughout his absence, including a call in the celebratory locker room on Thursday night.
Richardson, an assistant coach, ran the bench since Game 3 in this series; he is technically considered the interim interim coach, as Ducharme replaced Claude Julien when he was fired in February.
Montreal captain Shea Weber, who has played in 1,083 regular-season games over 16 seasons, will play in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his career. Richardson said earlier in the playoffs, Ducharme had some of the veterans who had been to and won a Stanley Cup Final before (Corey Perry, Joel Edmundson, Eric Staal and Jake Allen) address the team.
Weber, 35, was also among the speakers that day.
"It really resonated with the young guys don't take it for granted, and that time goes by really fast, and it's really hard to get where we are now, and where we're going," Richardson said. "So when we have this chance, we really have to grasp that opportunity. I think you're seeing it in our play, over the last three or four games especially. It means the world probably to all the guys to see Shea there, but Shea is like, 'Don't be pulling for me,' That's what he's like."
Price was a star in this series -- continuing his strong postseason after a less-than-stellar regular season. The 33-year-old is 12-5 with a .934 save percentage in the postseason. The Habs' 1-3-1 defensive structure completely clogged Vegas in the neutral zone, frustrating forwards who typically generate offense off the rush.
After the game, Stone said he wasn't playing hurt.
"I got skunked in this series," he said. "That can't happen. I'm the captain of this team. I'm the leader of this team. I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred."
The Canadiens, meanwhile, got a boost from their young forwards. There have been 19 goals scored in this postseason by players age 21 and under; 14 of them have been scored by Canadiens. That includes rookie forward Cole Caufield, who had four goals in the Vegas series.
Caufield, the Hobey Baker winner with Wisconsin this year, signed his entry-level contract in April and played 10 regular-season games. He was a healthy scratch to start the playoffs.
"It means everything to the team; I mean these guys have been playing for a while and this opportunity doesn't come around very often," Caufield said. "Playing for these older guys and the guys that have been here for a while is probably the biggest thing right now."
After Caufield said that, Danault -- sitting next to him at the postgame news conference -- patted the rookie on the back.
"You're sure a big part of it, though," Danault said.