The Montreal Canadiens coach fought back emotions after the Canadiens advanced to the Stanley Cup Semifinals with a 3-2 overtime victory against the Winnipeg Jets at Bell Centre on Monday to complete a four-game sweep in the best-of-7 second round.
Montreal advanced past the second round in the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and will face the winner of the best-of-7 series between the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche, which is tied 2-2 with Game 5 at Ball Arena in Denver on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Hearing the jubilant crowd of 2,500 sound more like 20,000 at Bell Centre reminded Ducharme how much this success is injecting joy and hope to so many, whether it be inside the Canadiens dressing room, in the streets of the city, even throughout the entire province of Quebec.
The 48-year-old grew up in Joliette, about 50 miles northeast of Montreal, with a personal connection to the Canadiens dating to his childhood. To be able to help create the special vibe surrounding the team right now is not lost on him.
“That team means a lot to me,” Ducharme said, his eyes welling up. “To be able to be here and to be going to the third round, it makes me really happy and proud to be with my team.
“It’s special for me.”
The passionate fan base feels the same way.
During Ducharme’s postgame press conference, revelers outside Bell Centre were singing and celebrating, and continued well into the early hours of Tuesday.
“It kind of feels like nobody believes in us,” forward Tyler Toffoli said. “The only people we have are ourselves and our fans, which clearly the small amount of them in the building sounded like there were a lot more than what it was, behind us. So we’re sticking together, we’re playing as one, we’re winning games and we’re having fun.”
Toffoli scored for Montreal at 1:39 of overtime in Game 4 to eliminate Winnipeg.
No matter their opponent in the semifinals, the Canadiens will be a decided underdog. The Avalanche (39-13-4) and Golden Knights (40-14-2) finished first and second in the regular-season NHL standings with 82 points, 23 more than 18th-place Montreal (24-21-11). Colorado won the Presidents’ Trophy with the best regular-season record in the NHL through a tiebreaker, having five more regulation wins (35-30) than Vegas.
Carey Price could care less about the odds. The goalie said he believes this is the most special team he has played on during his 14 seasons in Montreal.
“This team is playing as well as any team has ever played,” he said.
Since trailing the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 after four games in the first round, the Canadiens have been on a roll. They have won seven consecutive games and have scored first in each. Price has been outstanding with an 8-3 record, a 1.97 goals-against average, a .935 save percentage and one shutout in 11 playoff games, but has not been forced to carry the Canadiens on a nightly basis.
Montreal has not trailed in 437:53, dating to Game 4 against Toronto, the second-longest run in NHL postseason history. The record of 488:38 was set by the 1960 Canadiens, when they won their NHL record fifth straight Stanley Cup title.
In Montreal you can’t escape such history. As forward Paul Byron said, you just try to make your own.
Each night the Canadiens step onto the Bell Centre ice, they play beneath banners honoring their Hockey Hall of Fame contingent, players like Patrick Roy, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Guy Lafleur and Yvon Cournoyer. In Game 3 against the Jets on Sunday, Lafleur and Cournoyer, each wearing a mask, were in a private box cheering for their former team.
Comparisons already are being made to the 1993 Canadiens, who won 11 overtime games on the way to the Stanley Cup. No Canada-based NHL franchise has won it since.
“I was 20 years old, so I remember well ’93,” said Ducharme, who was playing for the University of Vermont at the time. “It was a great time. The team really jelled together and went through adversity against [the] Quebec [Nordiques] (losing the first two games in the first round) and then came back and got on a roll.”
Adversity is something this edition of the Canadiens can relate to.
Ducharme was promoted from assistant when Claude Julien was fired Feb. 24 and immediately faced issues. Due to NHL COVID-19 protocols, Montreal had a condensed schedule in which they played their final 25 games in 44 days and were the last of the 16 NHL playoff teams to qualify.
Yet, captain Shea Weber believed this was a team capable of great things.
“From the start of the year and throughout the whole year there’s not one moment we doubted our team,” the defenseman said.
Now, through two rounds of the playoffs, the players, like their fan base, acknowledge there is a special feeling around the team.
Like Ducharme, forward Phillip Danault understands the excitement brewing in Quebec. He was born in Victoriaville, about 100 miles northeast of Montreal, three months before the Canadiens hoisted the Cup in 1993.
“I’ve been dreaming about bringing it back to Montreal one day,” Danault said. “I think this is our chance.”