The Montreal Canadiens are the champions of Canada. The fourth-seeded team. The team with the fewest points of any playoff team. The team that fired its coach a few months back. The team that truly shouldn’t have gotten this far.
And yet, they beat Toronto, the top-seeded organization from the division, in seven games despite being down 3-1. And just last night, they knocked off the Winnipeg Jets, a team that swept Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, in four games.
Kinda crazy, isn’t it?
But as the final celebration was held at the Bell Centre in Montreal, #FireJim and #FireBenning began trending in Canada for what seems like the billionth time over the past year.
For Vancouver Canucks fans, seeing the player they let go for nothing over the off-season – after giving away a handful of valuable assets to bring in a key piece of the team’s playoff hopes – score the game-winning goal hurt. Toffoli was willing to stay, but the offer was never there.
And now he just helped his team earn a Cinderella berth into the final four of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Granted, Montreal isn’t favored to take down either Colorado or Vegas, but they weren’t the favorites against Toronto or Winnipeg, either. If the series out west continues to drag out, even as far as seven games, you can’t count out this Montreal Canadiens team right now.
Through 11 games, Toffoli’s 10 points are the most among all Canadiens players and tied for 14th overall in the post-season. A year ago, a high-ankle sprain took Toffoli out for all but one game in the opening two rounds of the playoffs, and when he returned against Vegas, he finished with four points in seven games. A valiant effort, for sure, but that was it for his tenure. Ten points in the regular season, four in the playoffs. And then he was gone.
Toffoli’s arrival was noticeable in Montreal. He finished with 44 points in the first year of his four-year pact and was always one of Montreal’s better players. And when it really matters, he’s been fantastic.
As the Canucks continue to sit on the sidelines after missing the post-season entirely less than a year after nearly earning a conference final berth, watching Toffoli perform the way he has is a stark reminder of what the Canucks could have had. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked out. The Canucks needed more than Toffoli’s goal-scoring to be a contender this year, but it surely would have helped, right?
It’s not like Canucks fans need reminding. Bad contracts to under-performing players hampered the team’s ability to perform. Thatcher Demko started to begin living up to expectations as the season went on, but it was still a bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a bit between him and Braden Holtby. The team only got 26 games out of Elias Pettersson and the team’s depth couldn’t find a way to fill the holes. It was a doomed season from the beginning that only got worse when COVID-19 knocked the team out for a better part of a month.
The season wasn’t easy for the Canucks, and neither is watching a quality player they let whisk away thrive deep into the post-season. When Benning told Ben Kuzma of The Province that the team “ran out of time” to sign Toffoli, Canucks fans were furious. Benning’s past contract mistakes had finally caught up to him. But that’s not news to Canucks fans.
Canucks faithful want the best for Toffoli. They aren’t bitter that he left, but how he left. They could have kept him with better cap management, and they didn’t. The Canucks do have Vasili Podkolzin on his way, so not all hope is lost.
But given the two different paths that Vancouver and Montreal took to get to this point, the short-term pain will leave painful long-term memories of a struggling era for a team a decade removed from a Stanley Cup appearance.
And it could have all been avoided.