x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Let's hear it for the Habs

The underdog Montreal Canadiens have come so far, shocking the hockey world, writes Sam McCaig.

Jaroslav Halak gets most of the credit for Montreal's play-off performance.
Jaroslav Halak gets most of the credit for Montreal's play-off performance.

Whether the Montreal Canadiens' unlikely play-off run continues past the Pittsburgh Penguins and into the Eastern Conference final - and maybe even beyond - is almost a moot point. Let's take a moment and consider how far the Habs have already come. The team that finished 16th overall in the 30-team NHL, that backed into the play-offs thanks to an overtime loss in their final game of the regular season, has already accomplished far more than your average underdog.

The Habs shocked the hockey world when they rallied from a three-games-to-one series deficit against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, shutting down the NHL's most explosive offence in the process. (As a side note, the Canadiens became the first No 8 seed in NHL history to win a series after trailing 3-1.) Jaroslav Halak, the goaltender, has received most of the credit - and deservedly so - for his spectacular play and penchant for winning when facing 40 or more shots. Of course, Halak has had a lot of help, from the shot-blocking blueline tandem of Hal Gill and Josh Gorges to the relentless backchecking of the team's suddenly defensive forwards.

Timely scoring? Hello, Mike Cammalleri, with nine goals in 12 games, and Brian Gionta, with five. What else do these two forwards have in common besides an ability to score in the clutch? For starters, they are the pint-sized jewels in the since-departed GM Bob Gainey's free agency crown, signed last summer amid hue and cry that their diminutive size would not allow them to compete when the going got rough in the play-offs. Gainey, who stepped down in mid-season, saying he had lost his passion for the job, has to be feeling a sense of satisfaction seeing his charges forge ahead in the face of overwhelming odds.

The Canadiens did not rest after the first round, continually rallying against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Penguins in Round 2 while everyone outside Montreal - or, more accurately, beyond Quebec's borders - was busy dismissing their chances to advance. Falling behind 3-2 against the Penguins does not help their cause, but underestimating the Canadiens ia a mug's game. As in, underestimate them again and they might end up with Lord Stanley's mug. sports@thenational.ae