TORONTO — This starts with belief and ends quickly without it.
So, what do these Montreal Canadiens, who finished with the 24th-best record before the NHL season was suddenly halted by COVID-19, believe about themselves? What does a team that had two eight-game winless streaks and four losses in four games to the last-place Detroit Red Wings believe about itself?
What does a team that sold off four important pieces prior to the trade deadline really believe ahead of do-or-die games against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that could’ve finished with the league’s best record but finished seventh (largely) because their infirmary was a revolving door for their best players from October to March? And what are these Canadiens holding to, beyond the intangible of anything being possible — and certainly after a four-month pause in the action and with the Stanley Cup on the line — to convince themselves they can win?
Because “why not?” isn’t quite the same as “why not us?”
“This is an opportunity for us to show that we are a good team,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin before Phase 3 training camp got underway on July 13. “It is a chance to show that we are a good team and we belong in this, and it’s going to be up to us to show it when we get to the hub city.”
We were looking for the signs on Tuesday, when the Canadiens took on the Toronto Maple Leafs in their only exhibition game before their Stanley Cup qualifier series, but we couldn’t find any of them.
We saw a disjointed team that fell into the same bad habits that plagued them all season — questionable decisions at both ends of the ice, a goal against on the first shift of the game, a goal against in the final minute of a period (they allowed more than a baker’s dozen of them over the winter) and an embarrassingly dysfunctional power play that whiffed six times and cost them two goals and much of the precious momentum.
We saw the Canadiens lose, just like they did in 40 of their 71 games, and it was hardly inspiring.
Granted, nothing was on the line and rust was to be expected.
But this was still an important opportunity for the Canadiens to build some much-needed confidence, and they squandered it.
“We’re such underdogs, people are acting like we’re not even an NHL team, like we’re not even expected to win one game,” was the text I received from one Canadiens player on Wednesday.
But it doesn’t matter what you or I think.
The only thing that matters is what they think.
“I agree we were awful against Toronto,” the next text read. “But if we buy in, we can definitely beat Pittsburgh.”
This can’t be an “if” proposition. Not at this stage of the game. But what else do the Canadiens have to go on?
For them, the feeling that they can definitely beat Pittsburgh has to be built during Game 1, because there’s not much else for them to draw on to find true conviction. In a best-of-five, against a team that’s expected to run them over, winning that first game can inspire that true conviction and change the entire complexion of this series.
But to achieve that outcome, the Canadiens are going to have to disengage themselves from their recent past and forge on as a team starting a new journey, with a clean slate and a great sense of opportunity.
It would seem they’re on that page, according to captain Shea Weber.
“We’re excited. [It’s] almost like a new season to start here as everyone’s in the same spot,” Weber said on Friday. “No momentum, no nothing, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen. Setup is the way it is now and we’ve got to get through this qualifier and hopefully build some momentum in Game 1 tomorrow.”
From a technical standpoint, the Canadiens are going to hope the best aspects of their game are present and sharp right from the start.
“It’s pretty obvious when we move the puck well, when we play fast, the puck comes out of our own end,” coach Claude Julien explained. “When we play fast, we’re able to kill plays quickly. When we play fast, our transition game is good. When we play fast, our forecheck is good, our scoring chances are good.
“So, you know, we’ve relied a lot on playing fast, and it’s not about all speed and all recklessness. But I think it’s playing fast in the facets of the game that we think is important for us. And today we had a good practice. I thought we had good pace, guys seemed excited about tomorrow, so hopefully we can bring that to the forefront there when they drop the puck tomorrow night.”
Even if the Canadiens manage to do that, the balance is still tilting heavily towards Pittsburgh’s side of the scale.
The Penguins have a massive edge in the talent department, they have Stanley Cup-winning pedigree and their players have over 1,400 games of playoff experience.
Up against Montreal’s players, who have just 400 games of playoff experience between them, the Penguins have a decisive advantage.
And the Canadiens are under no illusions about any of that.
“I think we’ve got a young team and we know we’re going to have to be playing as best we can, maybe even a bit over our heads, if we plan on moving forward here,” said Julien. “We’re very aware of that, but we’re also aware that we can do that. And I think the confidence and the will to want to do it has to be there and, hopefully, we can start showing that tomorrow night.”
The Canadiens had better, or this thing will be over in a hurry.