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'You dream about this stage:' Underdog Canadiens ready for Cup test against Lightning

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Corey Perry and Eric Staal sat in the Montreal Canadiens locker room moments after their team advanced to the Stanley Cup final.

The veteran forwards — champions early in their careers — were in a reflective mood.

Perry talked about how he made the third round of the playoffs as a rookie before hoisting hockey's holy grail with the Anaheim Ducks the following season in 2007.

Staal, meanwhile, won the Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes the previous year.

"You come into this league at a young age and you have success early," said Perry, 36, whose underdog Canadiens will face the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the final beginning Monday. "You think it's going to happen over and over and over again, and you can keep the same team together and just ride the wave.

"But that's not the case."

Staal, also 36, is back after 15 long years, while Perry, who made the title series with the Dallas Stars in 2020, went 13 campaigns between chances to play for the Cup.

And then there are the players who wait a long time — many never get there at all — for a single shot.

Canadiens captain Shea Weber, 35, is getting an initial taste 16 seasons into an illustrious career, while future Hall of Fame goalie Carey Price, 33, watched 13 finals before finally making it in Montreal's first trip since 1993.

"Just excitement," Price said of the opportunity. "Something we've been working towards our whole lives." 

And the journey for a team written off time and again isn't lost on the its youngest player — a sniper with four goals in Montreal's six-game semifinal victory.

"Just to be able to share this with them, it's been a lot of fun," said 20-year-old Cole Caufield. "But you see how serious this is. I saw that right away when I first stepped in the room. 

"This is for them." 

The Canadiens have believed in each other the last month against some of the longest playoff odds in recent memory.

They weren't given much of a chance in any of their first three series, but came back from a 3-1 deficit to stun the Toronto Maple Leafs, swept the Winnipeg Jets, and bested the Vegas Golden Knights in six to advance.

Next up is the toughest test to date — the battle-scarred Lightning — but it won't faze them.

"We believe that we aren't the underdog," said Montreal assistant Luke Richardson, who continues to call the shots with interim head coach Dominique Ducharme sidelined by a positive COVID-19 test until Game 3. "We're very confident in ourselves and what we've accomplished. 

"We've tuned out the outside of the dressing room and let people say what they want."

That criticism and doubt, however, was well-founded.

Apart from their rocky opening to the playoffs, Montreal's pandemic-truncated season has been peppered with adversity. A hot start in the one-time-only North Division was followed by a slump that led to a coaching change before a COVID-19 outbreak and a rash of injuries resulted in the 18th-ranked Canadiens limping into the post-season as the final team to qualify.

Now they're four wins away from Montreal's — and Canada's — first Cup in 28 years.

"It's exciting, it's surreal," Canadiens general manager and Montreal native Marc Bergevin said. "Everything that happened throughout this season, from the first day of camp, to being hit by COVID, to being down 3-1 against the Leafs, to where we are today, it's very special."

Tampa GM Julien BriseBois, who's from the Montreal suburb of Greenfield Park, is keenly aware what this series means to his home province.

"There aren't too many sports organizations where people write songs on the team and they become hits," he said. "We have a number of Quebecers in our organization.

"We know we have eight million opponents that we will need to beat if we want to win the Stanley Cup."

The task for Montreal — like almost everything else this season and in these playoffs — won't be easy against team that finally got over the hump last season following a string of playoff failures. 

The Lightning possess a high-octane attack, stingy defence corps, the sandpaper needed for gritty post-season moments and, like the Canadiens with Price, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

In short, Tampa can play the game any way the opponent likes.

"It might be the most-skilled team that we've played," said second-year Montreal centre Nick Suzuki. "They play real fast. They play strong, structured hockey.

"And they won last year, so they have a ton of confidence."

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who scored in Game 3 of last year's final in his only 2020 playoff appearance because of injury, said Tampa's desire to repeat burns just as bright.

"It's a lot easier said than done," he said. "But we put ourselves in a position to do that. 

"We want to go out there and finish the job."

Richardson, meanwhile, never got that chance in his 21 NHL campaigns as a hard-nosed defenceman.

"You dream about this stage your whole life," he said. "There's a lot of sacrifice this year."

As for Weber, his time in Montreal since being acquired from the Nashville Predators in 2016 for fellow star defenceman P.K. Subban hasn't been easy due to injuries and initial criticism of the deal.

"There's been some hard times, there's been some good times," he said. "But it's a part of the journey and a part of the story. It's been a good ride so far and hope to keep it going.

"We're in the position we want to be, but we're not at the end result."

Young or old, the Canadiens know this is their opportunity — improbable as it is — and they don't want to let it slip.

"You never know when that chance is going to happen," Perry said. "We, as a group, have talked about that. It's just live the moment, enjoy it.

"Take on this wild ride and have fun with it ... because you never know."

For this season at least, they'll find out soon enough.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2021.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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