An upstart Montreal Canadiens squad hit by Covid-19 will try to end Canada's 28-year Stanley Cup drought by dethroning the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning when the National Hockey League Final begins Monday.
The Canadiens, who will be without coach Dominique Ducharme and right wing Joel Armia due to Covid-19 issues, could become the first Canadian team to hoist the Cup since they did it in 1993, beating Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles in the final.
Canada's longest-ever Stanley Cup drought, previously six seasons, has seen Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa fall in the best-of-seven final since Montreal's triumph.
"We're hoping we just leave it all on the ice and at the end, when we do the things we've talked about, we can be proud of the effort and get the chance to be holding that Cup," said Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher.
It has been far from a smooth season. The Canadiens fired coach Claude Julien in February and named Ducharme interim coach. Montreal was last to qualify for the playoffs and with the fewest wins of any post-season club, 24 from 56 games.
Unfancied Montreal, 500-1 longshots, defied oddsmakers by dispatching Toronto in the first round, Winnipeg in the second and Vegas in the NHL semi-finals.
"We wouldn't be here right now if we didn't believe," Canadiens goaltender Carey Price said. "We've believed this whole time. Obviously we're ecstatic. We still have a lot of work left to do."
Just before game three of the semi-final series, Ducharme tested positive for Covid-19. He hopes to return after a 14-day quarantine starting with game three of the final, when the scene shifts to Montreal.
"We've always responded well to adversity," said Price, who is 12-5 in the playoffs. "Not having Dom behind the bench is just another twist we had to deal with."
Assistant coach Luke Richardson has gone 3-1 as a Ducharme fill-in and he sees something special in the Canadiens, who have inspired thousands to cheer outside home games that only 3,500 can attend under Covid-19 safety rules.
"These guys are a special group," Richardson said. "They're not done yet."
Armia, with five goals and three assists in the playoffs, was put into Covid-19 protocol Sunday.
"It's not ideal," Montreal defenseman Ben Chiarot said. "It's something we've kind of been dealing with all year is guys going out through the COVID protocol. It's just another little piece of adversity we'll have to deal with."
Tyler Toffoli leads the Canadiens with five goals and nine assists in the playoffs while Nick Suzuki has five goals and eight assists.
The Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup 24 times in their 112-year history, once before the formation of the NHL, while the Lightning seek a third after 2004 and last year. The only team to win back-to-back Cups since 1998 was Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017.
- Grinding series -
Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov has an NHL best 22 assists to go with five goals in the playoffs while Brayden Point has a playoff-best 14 goals.
Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the NHL with a .936 save percentage and has a 1.99 goals-against average while Price has a .934 save percentage and a 2.02 GAA.
Tampa Bay's Pat Maroon, who won the Cup with St. Louis in 2019 and Tampa Bay last year, could become the first to have his name inscribed on the Cup three consecutive seasons since the New York Islanders won it four times from 1980-1983.
"It's going to be a tough, grinding series," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "We're going to be going up against an amazing goaltender who's on his game right now. It's going to be a huge challenge for us."
The Canadiens know the reverse is true as well.
"There's a reason why they're back in the Final this year," Ducharme said. "It's going to be a tough challenge for us, that's for sure. But in any final it's supposed to be that way. We'll be ready to go."