Optimism abounds for ascending Canadiens after sting of Stanley Cup loss dissipates

In the midst of a pandemic, Carey Price transfixed hockey fans with super-human goaltending through three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs — invoking memories of his gold-medal performance for Team Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

In the first three games of the Stanley Cup final, at the worst possible time for the Montreal Canadiens, he was merely mortal.

The product of Anahim Lake, B.C., sparkled yet again in Games 4 and 5, but it was too late against a stacked team like Tampa Bay, with four lines that can score, a lethal power-play anchored by Nikita Kucherov and a spectacular goaltender in 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Without Price stealing games each and every night, the Montreal Canadiens lost the series four games to one against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

WATCH | Habs’ Cinderella run ends after Game 5 loss to Lightning:

Tampa Bay blanks Montreal 1-0 in Game 4 to claim their third Stanley Cup title in franchise history. 2:14

Tampa Bay becomes the first NHL team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

Disappointing for the Canadiens? Absolutely. Price is 33. Captain Shea Weber is 35. This could very well be as close as they’ll get to hoisting the Stanley Cup — the one honour missing for two of the generation’s best at their positions.

But devastating for Montreal hockey fans? Not if they think big picture. There’s plenty of reason for optimism once the sting of the series defeat dissipates.

No hockey school — or regimented video review — could teach Montreal’s youngsters the lessons they’ve learned on the job.

Young pieces to build around

Take Cole Caufield. He’s only 20 with four NHL appearances before the playoffs started. He wore a suit in the press box for the first two games against Toronto before joining the fray in Game 3.

The diminutive sniper finished the post-season with four goals and 12 points in 20 games, setting the foundation for possible NHL stardom.

He soaked up the wisdom of veteran warriors Corey Perry and Eric Staal, both sensational in their primes. He committed turnovers against the Lightning’s top line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Kucherov — and he paid for those transgressions.

Those are lessons he’ll remember and mistakes he’s unlikely to make again.

Just imagine the confidence Caufield will carry into his rookie season after such a baptism by fire.

WATCH | Stéphan Lebeau sees similarities between Habs, 1993 team:

Montreal Canadiens forward from 1989-94 Stéphan Lebeau says they may be underdogs but the Habs’ level of play as a team in these playoffs is what’s most striking, and it reminds him of his 1993 team. 1:49

At 21, centre Nick Suzuki is already playing with the poise of a veteran. Hockey IQ is impossible to measure, but Suzuki shows hints of prescience when it comes to anticipating the play.

The sophomore pivot led the Canadiens in playoff scoring with seven goals and 16 points in 22 games.

Interim head coach Dominque Ducharme benched Jesperi Kotkaniemi for Games 4 and 5 against Tampa, but the 21-year-old showed promise in his 19 playoff appearances with five goals and eight points.

Defenceman Alexander Romanov, 21, drew into the lineup in Game 4. The rookie experienced jubilation in the third period when he fired a puck through traffic past Vasilevskiy.

Exactly five minutes later, Tampa forward Mathieu Joseph victimized a dejected Romanov on a two-on-one to set up the tying goal by Pat Maroon.

Chalk them both up as valuable lessons learned for next year. Sometimes, you need to lose before you can win.

The Montreal youngsters will not be left on their own any time soon.

Tyler Toffoli, 28, led the Canadiens in scoring this season. He’s under contract for two more campaigns. The punishing Josh Anderson and the pesky Brendan Gallagher are locked up for five more seasons. Weber and Price are signed through 2025-26.

Price may have been expected to carry his team during the post-season — he did just that minus three rough nights at the office in the final round — but he can take comfort in knowing the kids might well give him at least one more chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s chalice.

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