The Montreal Canadiens aren’t quite as chained to their history and tradition as the rest of the hockey world (including yours truly) likes to joke about. They can never escape it, and nor should they. it’s the MONTREAL CANADIENS, for fuck’s sake. But the drawn-out pregame ceremonies and insistence on being at the head of every discussion isn’t quite as accentuated as it had been some years ago. That doesn’t mean Habs fans are the most gracious, and should they pick up four wins in the next seven games, all bets are off. But more than a scepter for those who currently adorn themselves in the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge, the Habs’ history has been something of a cudgel for opposing fans.
Even for modern hockey aficionados, who have heard about the Canadiens of yore, it’s hard not to know that the greatest teams were built on the flowing rushes (and locks!) of Guy Lafleur and the gracefully crunching play of Larry Robinson, who “carried the torch” from Maurice Richard and Jean Béliveau and Yvan Cournover.
What everyone has come to realize is that’s so far in the past so as not be relevant anymore. The Canadiens have a new tradition it seems, or at least one they can cement with an unexpected and unlikely championship. Their last two Cups, 1986 and 1993, were the product of a generational goalie propping up a group of useful but hardly stardust skaters through four rounds. Patrick Roy did it twice. The first Roy triumph had Mats Näslund as the best Habs forward, a more-than-solid and maybe-even-great player, but hardly a pillar of the game. His second seven years later dragged the likes of Vinny Damphousse, Kirk Muller, and Brian Bellows across the line. Again, very fine players, but hardly titans.
That’s what Carey Price can join here. The Canadiens have a raft of quick, defensively able forwards, a Cole Caufield that may be an offensive star one day soon, and that’s about it. On defense, Shea Weber was once among the best in the game (he did make two Canadian Olympic teams, after all), but those days are behind him. This is just about as faceless of a Stanley Cup finalist as you can have, aside from Price.
Where Price will differentiate from Roy’s two runs for Montreal is that he’s had to run an absolute gauntlet to get here. In 1986, Roy didn’t face a single 100-point scorer in four playoff rounds. And this was 1986, when any player that could show up for 75 percent of their games even half-sober would collect 95 points. In 1993, Roy got to duck the absolutely loaded Pittsburgh Penguins, who had been upset by the Islanders in the previous round, and really only had to negotiate a one-line Sabres team before seeing Wayne Gretzky in the Final. Not to take anything away from Roy, especially in that 1986 run, where he put up a .923 save percentage in a year where .909 led the regular season. He revolutionized a position that, at the time, most played like their first yoga class. And in 1993, Roy overcame three top-10 scoring teams from the regular season, even if his team had few standout stars of its own.
Price will be attempting the same. He has already beaten two top-10 scoring teams this year in Toronto and Vegas, and Tampa would be a third (it could be argued that Tampa would have been a top-five scoring team had Nikita Kucherov played at all in the regular season, giving Price two possible top-five scalps). Even the Jets, as backwards and leaking as they can be, sport the likes of Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele (when he isn’t getting himself suspended), and others. And this isn’t the ‘90s Devils, where Martin Brodeur got to clean up the rare puck that dribbled past the iron-curtain defense in front of him. Montreal is a good defensive team, but they only rank 12th among this year’s 16 playoff teams in even-strength expected goals against per game. Price has had to do the work.
The main problem for Price is at the other end, where the other goalie is perhaps the only one playing significantly better than him these playoffs. While Andrei Vasilevskiy has had a hiccup or two along the way, he leads the league in goals saved above expected by a $50 cab ride, according to MoneyPuck.com. Not only will Price have to keep at bay the vast array of snipers and killers employed by the Lightning, he’s going to have to outplay likely the best goalie on the planet as well.
Vasilevskiy and Price prove just how much it takes to win a Stanley Cup now. It used to be that teams thought all you needed was a goalie and 18 guys who wouldn’t fall down all that much, as Roy kind of proved twice (and Dominik Hašek nearly pulled off in Buffalo). Then the Red Wings made it seem like if you had an army of skilled skaters, you could win a Cup with some guy in net you found out back (hi there, Chris Osgood!). What’s become clear now is that you need both: Vasilevskiy behind the Lightning last year, Braden Holtby behind that Caps lineup in 2018. Matt Murray put up .923 and .937 (!) save percentages in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and still needed Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to be Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to win. Most thought the Hawks were in the Red Wings model of having Nameless Jackass in goal (including far too many in Chicago), but Corey Crawford was .932 in 2013 and .924 in 2015.
We already know the Lightning have both. The Canadiens have played like it through three rounds, but Price is going to have to make up for what they don’t have in front of him. And what the Lightning do.
If he does, he’ll walk with giants. He might even be the giant.