Dominique Ducharme could only smile.
In a roller-coaster season where his underdog Canadiens — left for dead time and again — have risen off the mat like a wobbly, bloodied, grinning prize fighter, they were set to board a plane and travel into the path of a potential hurricane with an eye on extending Montreal’s magical playoff run.
And less than 12 hours after staving off elimination in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final against the powerhouse, defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, they couldn’t have been happier.
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Because in a 2021 campaign that won’t be forgotten any time soon for a host of reasons, what’s a little more adversity?
“It’s no surprise anymore,” Ducharme, Montreal’s interim head coach, said Tuesday before the Canadiens flew south to Tampa, which is threatened by Tropical Storm Elsa. “Anything that happens right now, and for a while, we just take it and look at it, and say, ‘It’s probably part of our destiny.’
“It’s been crazy. But we’re a crazy bunch of guys in here, and we’re going to take that challenge.”
Elsa was expected to pass by Florida’s west coast overnight Tuesday and into Wednesday morning. Game 5 of the final remains scheduled for Wednesday at Tampa’s Amalie Arena. Game 6, if necessary, would be back in Montreal on Friday.
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Losing streaks, injuries to key personnel, a mid-season COVID-19 shutdown and having to scrap and claw just to make the playoffs — not to mention a 3-1 hole in the first round and Ducharme’s positive coronavirus test in the semifinals — means the Canadiens, 18th in the standings when the league’s 56-game schedule came to a close, aren’t batting a single eye at the situation.
Tampa International Airport tweeted Tuesday it would be suspending operations at 5 p.m. ET, but expected to reopen Wednesday morning.
“We’ve been through a lot this year,” said Montreal winger Corey Perry, in the title series for the second straight season after falling to the Lightning as a member of the Dallas Stars inside the 2020 playoff bubble. “Dom said it right: we’re a crazy bunch of people. This is fun to do it here in Montreal, to have the city behind us, to be one of the last two teams standing.
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“This is what you dream of as a kid.”
Now down 3-1 in the series following Monday’s thrilling 3-2 overtime victory at the Bell Centre, the Canadiens still face a massive uphill climb against an opponent that’s 13-0 following a playoff loss since getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round two years ago.
Tampa, however, is now just 3-3 in this post-season with a presented a chance to send an opponent packing, while Montreal improved 4-0 when facing elimination.
“You hate to lose,” Lightning defenceman Ryan McDonagh said of his team’s ability to respond. “Sometimes you hate to lose more than you like to win.
“That’s probably the identity of this group.”
The Canadiens’ identity has been in-your-face hockey through their three previous series, none of which they were expected to win, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights.
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But it’s taken Montreal time to find its game with the Cup just out of reach.
Ducharme’s men were slow out of the gate in Game 4 as Tampa held a 11-1 edge on the shot clock _ Price was outstanding all night after struggling with an .835 save percentage through the first three games _ before Josh Anderson, who also potted the OT winner, opened the scoring late in the first period.
“(Price) definitely gave us a chance to get our feet wet and then start our engine,” Perry said. “They came out, put a lot of pressure on us.
“We found a way to be resilient.”
Tampa wasted its first crack at putting Montreal away by not capitalizing on their 14-4 edge in high-danger scoring chances, per hockey analytics website naturalstattrick.com.
“We missed an opportunity,” said McDonagh, whose team hit three posts Monday. “Our group knows that … you turn the page pretty quick.”
Montreal’s penalty kill, which has allowed just five goals against in 58 short-handed situations for a playoff-best success rate of 91.4 per cent, was lights out again Monday with a 5-for-5 showing versus Tampa’s lethal attack.
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That included a four-minute man advantage that stretched from the third period into OT when Canadiens captain Shea Weber was whistled for high-sticking.
Montreal defenceman Ben Chiarot ended up playing nearly eight draining minutes on the kill, while fellow blue-liner Joel Edmundson logged 5:06 down a man.
“They’re just beasts,” said centre Jake Evans, who played 4:09 short-handed. “You don’t want to be anywhere near them. I wouldn’t want to be battling against them.”
The Canadiens are looking to do something that hasn’t been accomplished in 79 years — a comeback from an 0-3 deficit in the final to win the Cup.
It’s remains a long, daunting road.
But the 1942 Leafs never had to deal with a hurricane.
“This whole season has been kind of chaotic, kind of hectic,” Perry said. “We’ve kind of gone through everything.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge that’s ahead of us and we’ll be ready.”
Rain, gusting winds or shine.
© 2021 The Canadian Press