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Youth, experience has Canadiens on the cusp of Stanley Cup final

MONTREAL — Eric Staal wired a shot upstairs off a Nick Suzuki pass to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead in Game 5. Emerging second-year star to grizzled veteran.

MONTREAL — Eric Staal wired a shot upstairs off a Nick Suzuki pass to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead in Game 5.

Emerging second-year star to grizzled veteran.

Just over three minutes later, Corey Perry set the table for Cole Caufield to bury his third goal of Montreal's semifinal matchup against the heavily favoured Vegas Golden Knights.

Battle-scarred war horse — literally, after Perry took an uncalled high-stick in Game 3 — to fresh-faced rookie.

The sequences were two more examples of a team that's bottled the right mix of peach-fuzzed youth, veteran experience, commitment to each other and relentless hard work throughout a memorable spring.

And it has the pesky, plucky, always-in-your-face Canadiens — somehow, someway in a season like no other — within one victory of the Stanley Cup final.

"You're seeing this team growing," stand-in coach Luke Richardson said in the wake of Tuesday's 4-1 victory in Sin City that gave Montreal an unexpected 3-2 series lead. "You're seeing the young guys grow, get better every game with the direction of the veterans supporting them. They're really feeling it right now. And feeling it in a good way.

"It's fun to watch."

But after a trying season, Canadiens fans, and much of the hockey world, can't quite comprehend what they're seeing.

Following some key acquisitions on the heels of a surprising showing inside last summer's post-season bubble, Montreal began the 56-game schedule hot before a February flounder cost head coach Claude Julien his job and propelled assistant Dominique Ducharme into the spotlight on an interim basis. 

The move didn't have the desired effect — at least initially. The Canadiens never really got on track as they attempted to implement new schemes on the fly in the NHL's condensed pandemic season, experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, and suffered through a string of injuries down the stretch.

"I don't think we really cared that much about what everyone thinks about our team," winger Joel Armia said. "We have a big trust on each other in the locker room. That's all that matters. 

"The guys in the locker room know we're a good team."

It certainly wasn't clear outside those four walls. 

Montreal, which finished 18th in the overall standings, got next to no love heading into the first round of the playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs, especially after falling behind 3-1 in the series.

"There were a lot of people counting us out," Suzuki said.

But the Canadiens stunned their Original Six rivals with three straight victories to take it in seven games, and then pulled another shocker by sweeping the Winnipeg Jets to win the much-maligned North Division and set up a showdown with league's No. 2 seed that had just dethroned the Presidents' Trophy-wining Colorado Avalanche.

Now they have those same Golden Knights — a flashy, frustrated group that was smashing sticks and slamming doors as Montreal marched to victory in Game 5 — on the brink.

"We had our ups and downs and struggles," Richardson, who's running the Canadiens' bench following Ducharme's positive COVID-19 test before Game 3, said of the season. "A little concerning when it was that close to the playoffs, but we were lucky with some (healthy players) coming back, we clicked halfway through that Toronto series, and we just started to find our way. 

"It's very exciting."

Montreal will look to close out the series and book a spot in the final for the first time since the team's last Cup win — and Canada's — back in 1993 on Thursday at the Bell Centre on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec.

"The guys love playing for each other," said Richardson, a hard-nosed defenceman when he laced up the skates for 21 NHL seasons. "As a coaching staff, really enjoying watching them have the success that they deserve." 

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin signed Perry and traded for Staal, who both have Stanley Cup rings, to support battle-tested goaltender Carey Price and captain Shea Weber, and help mentor the still-green Suzuki, Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who scored Tuesday's opener to silence the usually raucous T-Mobile Arena.

"The coaching staff's relying on that veteran core leadership," Richardson said. "It's actually fun to sit back behind that bench (and see) the younger players and the team react when the experienced guys that have been through these situations stand up and say something."

On the other side, the Golden Knights are searching for answers to the same maddening questions Toronto and Winnipeg couldn't unlock against an opponent on a mission.

And they're running out of time.

"That's our job ... to try and turn over every stone," Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer said. "The moments in this series where we've had success, there's no doubt we're doing certain things. 

"But we're not doing them for long enough stretches and with enough participants."

The Canadiens have had a lot to do with that, and now find themselves just 60 minutes from finishing off another incredible chapter in this unexpected journey.

"We're not satisfied," Richardson said. "We're just enjoying the ride and the run because the players deserve it. 

"They're earning it."

Veterans and youngsters alike.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press