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Deconstructing the ultimate underdog: Veterans edition

Special contributor Marc Dumont examines the role veterans have played in the Habs' playoff success so far

by Marc Dumont, special contributor @CanadiensMTL / canadiens.com

What does it take to build a winner?

Ask 100 hockey minds the secret to constructing a contending playoff roster and you'll probably get 100 different answers. 

Amidst the sea of answers, however, you're likely to hear a few common themes. 

It takes a lot of talent, a little bit of luck, a healthy dose of youthful exuberance, and perhaps most importantly, a group of focused veterans that elevate their game to a new level once adversity inevitably makes its first of many appearances.

Sometimes it takes a mind-blowing performance from the aforementioned veterans. 

Other times it takes a quick reminder these opportunities are few and far between - a reminder that often beckons the entire team to seize the day before regret replaces anticipation.

And once in a while, it takes both. 

"I'm not frustrated at all, to be honest," explained Price following game 4 of the first round series versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I believe in these guys. These guys are talented guys. I see their shots in practice every day. I have no doubt that they have the ability to score goals. They're trying out there. I know they are. It's going to come."

Price didn't just offer lip service to his struggling forwards when they needed it most, he provided the type of performance that would embolden any player to take the next step and seize the opportunity before them.

Through the first two rounds, Price managed to maintain a sparkling .935 all-situations save percentage, as well as saving 5.3 goals above the expected average (GSAA), essentially sealing both Toronto and Winnipeg's fate in the process.

Tweet from @CanadiensMTL: 😱#GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/Zl28tRbtze

Every time Price denied a perfect scoring opportunity, opponents clutched their sticks a little tighter, until ultimately there was nothing left but a little dust, frustration, and an early postseason exit. 

Following Price's lead, the Canadiens received a strong showing from a slew of veterans, some hungry for their first taste from Lord Stanley's Cup, others looking to once again renew their love affair with the world's most beautiful trophy.

The latter is epitomized by none other than Tyler Toffoli, who has quickly established himself as a dominant force on the ice and a fan favorite among Canadiens supporters, due to his penchant for scoring epic goals, as well as his quick embrace of the city he now calls home.

One could cite a bevy of advanced statistics to elaborate on his value to the team, but when it comes down to it, there's a very easy way to explain Toffoli's impact: the Canadiens needed an offensive hero, and Toffoli was happy to oblige. 

"He wants to make the difference," said head coach Dominique Ducharme."He's such a smart player that he can really analyze well what he's doing from one game to another, to see what works."

Tweet from @CanadiensMTL: TOFFOLI MET FIN �� LA S��RIE!!!!!!TOFFOLI ENDS THE SERIES!!!!!!#GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/45qjEU0zmI

You could argue Toffoli and Price are leading the charge both in the locker room and on the ice, but as we all know, it takes an entire cast of hungry, intelligent veterans to make it to this point in the playoffs, particularly as the 16th seed. 

Players such as Joel Armia, Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar, Josh Anderson, Artturi Lehkonen, Paul Byron, and Eric Staal, who have all taken turns providing the offensive spark the Canadiens needed to dismantle two teams that were heavily favored over the Canadiens. Not to mention, Jonathan Drouin's invaluable contributions throughout the regular season.

The veterans provided the belief that no matter what the numbers say, this is not a math test.

It's a completely different kind of challenge, where passion and hard work can propel you to heights no one predicted you could achieve.

Call it the Corey Perry factor, if you will. A certain confidence that is generally born from experiencing all the highs and lows the NHL has to offer. It's the type of attitude that shuts out the outside noise and allows players to focus on the task at hand.

"Those guys are leaders," said Ben Chiarot. "They've been in the League for a long time and had a lot of experiences in the League, in the playoffs, and won Stanley Cups. They're a huge part of our room. They have all the right things and they know all the right buttons to push as we go along here. They're invaluable to us."

Tweet from @CanadiensMTL: L'HOMME DES GRANDES OCCASIONS.#GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/h79GnjZ9cV

It allows players such as G̶u̶y̶ ̶C̶a̶r̶b̶o̶n̶n̶e̶a̶u̶ Phillip Danault to focus all their energy on shutting down superstars like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner without having to worry about providing offense. 

Preventing 20 goals against will always be more valuable than scoring 10 goals for, a theory that Danault has proven multiple times over his tenure with the Canadiens, where he has maintained some of the best underlying numbers at 5v5 in the entire league. 

And while there's no doubt the Canadiens' veteran forwards are doing their part to keep the momentum going, we'd be remiss if we did not mention the excellent work by the defensive core, which has been tasked with facing some of the best offensive weapons in the league on a nightly basis.

Jeff Petry, Joel Edmunson, Ben Chiarot, and captain Shea Weber haven't just been tasked with logging heavy minutes in crucial situations, they've done so with aplomb. Their success isn't simply driven by the war of attrition that takes place in every series, though the aforementioned players, as well as Jon Merrill, have certainly helped the Canadiens win the physical battles. 

Once you add in the puck-moving abilities of Brett Kulak and Erik Gustafsson, who are crucial elements to the Canadiens' penchant for scoring off the rush, it's easy to see why coach Dominique Ducharme has shown the utmost confidence in his defensive squad. It contains a little of everything that's needed to compete in the strenuous event known as the NHL playoffs.

Tweet from @CanadiensMTL: Gustafsson marque son premier avec les Canadiens!!Gus gets his first as a Hab!#GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/w7eHAmKyoT

There's a lot to like about these veterans, and not just due to their experience giving them the insight to maintain a calming presence in the locker room.

There's an old saying that suggests players who are good in the locker room should stay there. But the difference in this particular case, is the Canadiens' veterans are not simply cheerleaders behind closed doors. They're leading the charge on the ice, providing the exact type of leadership that inspires and fuels the younger members of the Canadiens to reach for greatness.

It's quite easy to tell others to seize the day, and for some, that's enough motivation to get the task done.

But the Canadiens' veterans aren't simply handing the younger players a roadmap for victory and wishing them good luck.

They're at the front of the line, guiding them to the promised land.

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