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Lafleur impressed by Canadiens' success during playoffs

'Everybody's hoping they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup,' Montreal icon says

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Guy Lafleur said he's pleasantly surprised the Montreal Canadiens have advanced to the Stanley Cup Semifinals, something one of the team's legends did not expect two weeks ago.

The Canadiens advanced past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014 with a 3-2 overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets to complete a four-game sweep Monday. In the first round, Montreal rallied from 3-1 down in the series to eliminate the rival Toronto Maple Leafs.

"The way they were playing early on against the Toronto Maple Leafs, no," Lafleur said Tuesday.

"When they were down 3-1 to Toronto, well, I didn't expect them to make that kind of comeback. But I was really happy that they did. They showed that they have character. They wanted to show everybody that they could do it."

Lafleur has won the Stanley Cup five times (1973, 1976-79) and is one of the most recognizable and beloved Canadiens alumni. The 69-year-old native of Thurso, Quebec, scored 518 goals for Montreal between 1971-85, then 42 more for the New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques from 1988-91, having returned to the NHL following a four-year retirement and his 1988 Hockey Hall of Fame enshrinement.

The Canadiens leader in assists (728) and points (1,246), and second in goals to Maurice "Rocket" Richard (who scored 544), Lafleur is loved by Montreal fans for his unflinching willingness to speak his mind, especially when he perceived a lack of effort by his former team. He drew a huge roar from the 2,500 fans during Game 3 against the Jets on Sunday when he was shown on the scoreboard. He was watching the game in a Bell Centre suite, joined by fellow team ambassadors Yvan Cournoyer, who won the Stanley Cup 10 times, and Rejean Houle, who won it five times.

"I'm very proud when they work their butts off and they win," Lafleur said. "Sometimes they lose games by their own fault. They don't give 100 percent, they don't play as a team. I get very [peeved] when that happens. I understand you can't win them all, but at least you have to give full effort to do everything you can to win the game.

"It's a lot more enjoyable in this city when they're winning. Now, everybody's happy, everybody's hoping they have a chance to win the Stanley Cup this year."

The Canadiens will play the winner of the best-of-7 second round between the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche, which Vegas can win in Game 6 at home on Thursday.

Lafleur says he has been particularly impressed this Stanley Cup Playoff season by goalie Carey Price and forwards Tyler Toffoli, whose overtime goal Monday eliminated the Jets, Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield.

Price missed the final 13 games of the regular season with a concussion. He won Game 1 against Toronto, then lost three straight, and is undefeated since. He's 8-3 in 11 playoff games with a 1.97 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and one shutout.

"At the beginning of the playoffs, I think [Price] was a bit shaky," Lafleur said. "He wasn't nervous -- he's not that kind of goalie -- but he wasn't in game shape, not as sharp as he is now. 

"He's in his bubble. To [upset] him you've got to get him out of it and nobody's been doing it, so that's good for the Canadiens. I don't understand why Toronto and Winnipeg didn't realize that if they wanted a chance, they had to disturb a hot goalie.

"That's what we used to do with Billy Smith. Me and (1970s linemate) Steve Shutt, the first five minutes against the New York Islanders, we used to shoot at Billy's head to [upset] him and it worked. I don't understand why it worked, but it did. You either play to win or you watch the other team score goals."

The Canadiens have gotten significant contributions from three of their youngest players: Suzuki, 21, Caufield, 20, and forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 20, have combined for 16 points (eight goals, eight assists), with energy to burn.

Caufield was a healthy scratch the first two games against the Maple Leafs but has been a fixture since. He joined joined the Canadiens on March 29 after winning the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best player in NCAA Division I men's ice hockey, and set up Toffoli on the winning goal in Game 4 against the Jets.

"You can tell he's having fun, really enjoying it, and he's passionate about the game," Lafleur said. "That's all that counts."

Lafleur, like most fans, watched intently when general manager Marc Bergevin and the Canadiens shuffled the deck this season. They signed Toffoli (Oct. 12, 2020) and forward Corey Perry (Dec. 28, 2020) as free agents, acquired defenseman Joel Edmundson (Sept. 12, 2020), forward Josh Anderson (Oct. 6, 2020) and center Eric Staal (March 26) in trades and named Dominique Ducharme to replace Claude Julien as coach Feb. 24.

"I think Marc was going in the right direction," Lafleur said. "It turns out that everything went almost perfectly for everybody. It was a gamble, but he had no choice. You get to the point when you have to improve the team and do everything in your power to bring the best players you can. 

"Everyone knows that not everybody wants to play in Montreal because of the pressure and the taxes or whatever. If you lose, it's a nightmare. But if you win, it's the best city in the world. Right now, it's a pretty good place. Fans are very positive about the team with all the young guys playing as well as they are. We're all looking forward to seeing what's going to happen next against Vegas or Colorado."

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