For Montrealers, hockey always has been more than just a game. It is our hopes, our dreams, our culture, our national identity.
Nowhere has it been played with more success and more passion. Nowhere does it elicit more joy from its audiences. When the Canadiens win, the fans win. When the Canadiens lose, they lose.
Once, the team was the blinding speed of a Howie Morenz. It was a Maurice Richard sweeping in on a goaltender whenever there was a game to be won. It was the grace of Jean Beliveau, the brilliance of Doug Harvey, the booming shot of Bernie Geoffrion, the finesse of Dickie Moore and the Hall of Fame excellence of Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey and so many others.
How many treasured memories have they delivered to generations not only of Canadiens fans, but to Canadians across the land -- and elsewhere? How much joy did they bring? How many hearts did they break -- particularly among visiting teams?
That was then; this is now. Almost 17 seasons have passed since this franchise with a mystique for winning brought home its 24th Stanley Cup -- but the passion endures.
It is there in the season-long sellouts to watch a struggling team that sneaked into the playoffs on the final day of the season. It is there for a team that has missed the playoffs six times, didn't get beyond the first round five times and hasn't made it to the conference final even once since winning its last Stanley Cup in 1993.
Yet only seconds after the No. 8 Canadiens eliminated the No. 1 overall Washington Capitals on Wednesday with a nail-biting 2-1 victory in Game 7, thousands of fans spilled into the downtown area to celebrate. They remained there for hours waving flags, leaning out of cars and honking horns while police out in force looked on to guard against the vandalism following a Canadiens' first-round win over the Bruins in 2008.
Hardly anybody expected the Canadiens even to challenge the Capitals, a team that finished the regular season with 33 more points and 101 more goals. Almost everybody expected their season to end when they went into Washington for Game 5 trailing the series 3-1 after losing badly twice at home.
Washington in five -- six at the outside. That's what everyone was thinking. Until, that is, goaltender Jaroslav Halak happened. Yeah, that Halak, the one who stopped 131 of the 134 shots he faced in his last three games. The 24-year-old who made 37 stops in his team's 2-1 victory in Washington last Friday, an unbelievable 53 in the Canadiens' 4-1 victory at home on Monday, and 41 in the series finale. Halak didn't merely give his team a chance to win: he carried them on his slender shoulders -- just as he did bringing them into the playoffs.
People already are calling him another Ken Dryden, winner of six Stanley Cups in eight seasons. They're describing him as another Patrick Roy, who led the Canadiens to their last two Cups.
Whoa! Make no mistake about it: the Canadiens remain alive only because of Halak. Also, there's no question his goaltending had a Cup quality to it ... for three games.
It is possible -- likely perhaps -- that a lot of Canadiens fans are thinking Stanley Cup after their team's stunning first-round win over the Capitals. Some may even remember the ride to the 1993 Stanley Cup was an astonishing exercise in upsets --; as it has been in the East this season.
Boston, which had finished first in the Adams Division during the 1992-93 season, was swept by the fourth-place Buffalo Sabres. Pittsburgh, No. 1 overall, fell in the second round to the New York Islanders, a team that had finished 32 points behind the Penguins.
Chicago, a first-place finisher in its division, lost to the fourth-place St. Louis Blues. Toronto handled Detroit and while Vancouver made it the Smythe Division final, they were untracked by the Los Angeles Kings.
What these upsets did was leave the door ajar for the wild and joyous ride enjoyed by the Canadiens to their 24th Cup -- which included an energy-sapping, mind-numbing 10 consecutive overtime victories by a chap named Roy, the most overtime wins in one season and the most consecutive overtime wins.
Last season, the Canadiens were swept by the Bruins. Eliminating Washington against all odds was a cause for celebration. However, Canadiens fans should understand that in this second round, Halak is taking on two of the NHL's brightest stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who know what it takes to win. And in Marc-André Fleury, the Canadiens will be facing better goaltending than they did in Washington.
Clearly, all of the pressure to win in this series is on the Penguins. Canadiens fans are entitled to their dreams, but they should know that Pittsburgh knows how to win under pressure -- which is something the Capitals have yet to learn.