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Column: For Luc Robitaille, Canadiens in Stanley Cup Final feels like old times

Luc Robitaille in a suit
Luc Robitaille arrives at the NHL100 Gala held at the Microsoft Theater on Jan. 27, 2017.
(Richard Shotwell / Associated Press)

When Luc Robitaille was growing up in Montreal, hockey was the Montreal Canadiens.

Before cable and satellite brought the world to everyone’s living room and streaming offered infinite entertainment choices, Robitaille saw only the Canadiens and then only once a week on Hockey Night in Canada telecasts. Like so many French-speaking kids in Montreal and the province of Quebec, he pretended to be his heroes when he played against his brother, Pierre.

“When we were like 4 or 5 years old, he’d be the red Canadiens. I was the white ones,” Robitaille, a Hockey Hall of Fame left wing and now president of the Kings, said of Montreal’s classic home and road uniforms.

The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1966, the year Robitaille was born, and won regularly throughout his childhood and into his adolescence. Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau would say each spring the team’s Cup parade would “follow the usual route,” and everyone knew what he meant. The Canadiens monopolized the Cup from the 1975-76 season through 1978-79, assembling some of the most powerful and complete teams that ever graced a hockey rink.

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“Obviously, we took it for granted. It was just like every year,” Robitaille said. “By the time I started realizing it and I was playing hockey and so forth, they won four Stanley Cups in a row. Crazy when you think about it.”

Crazier still to think that the Canadiens, whose existence and first Cup title predate the formation of the NHL, haven’t won the Cup or reached the Final since 1993. Craziest of all to think this season’s team, which fired its coach in February and was the last to clinch a playoff berth, has ended Montreal’s Cup Final famine.

Andrei Vasilevskiy had 18 saves Friday night as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the New York Islanders 1-0 in Game 7 of their NHL playoff semifinal series.

The Canadiens, who erased a 3-1 deficit to upset Toronto in seven games, swept Winnipeg and stifled Vegas’ offense in the semifinals, will face the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning for the Cup starting on Monday in Tampa. In a season made grim by COVID-19 concerns— Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the virus and will miss the first two games in Tampa because he’s still in quarantine— in a league that realigned to group all seven Canada-based teams in one division because of COVID-related travel restrictions, the Canadiens reaching the Final is so absurd that it’s wonderfully right. “It’s exciting. It’s surreal,” Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, a native of Montreal, said Sunday.

For fans in Montreal, it’s bliss.

“For the older folks it’s probably very meaningful and for the younger people, it’s just something that they’ve heard for years and years and years in the past and seen the history,” Robitaille said. “To be there, it must be an amazing feeling.”

Although the sports universe has expanded, the Canadiens remain king in their corner of the world. “I don’t think people realize what the Montreal Canadiens mean to the people of Montreal until you go there and live there. It’s part of their life every day, all year round. Even in the summer. When there’s absolutely nothing going on, that’s still part of their life,” Robitaille said.

“It’s unlike anything in the U.S., because you might be the biggest baseball fan and when that’s over you’re probably going to watch football, you know? And you’re going to watch the NBA, you’re going to watch the NHL. But over there, once the Canadiens are over they just stop watching sports and they just wait. A lot of times I joke with my brother, and he lives there, that there are other teams in the NHL. It’s incredible, the passion.”

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Luc Robitaille raises his arms after scoring a goal and the audience behind him does the same
Kings left wing Luc Robitaille celebrates after scoring a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs in second period action of Game 2 of the NHL Conference finals on May 27, 1993, in Inglewood.
(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

Robitaille sees some parallels between these Canadiens and the 1993 team that also was a surprise finalist and defeated the Kings in five games with the help of a power play gained via Marty McSorley’s illegally curved stick in Game 2 (sorry if it’s too soon to bring that up again, Kings fans, but you’ve since had two Cup titles to console you). The 1993 Canadiens won 10 of 11 playoff overtime games that year, which Robitaille believes involved a dose of luck; the current team benefitted from injuries and a suspension to key players in each round.

But the Canadiens will need more than luck to beat the Lightning, who finished third in the Central division while high-scoring winger Nikita Kucherov recovered from hip surgery. Placing him on long-term injured reserve — where they’d stashed the contracts of Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson — gave Tampa Bay more than $17 million in salary cap relief to make depth moves before the trade deadline. Kucherov healed in time to return in the playoffs, when the salary cap isn’t in effect. The slumbering Lightning woke up, taking out Florida in six games, Carolina in five, and the New York Islanders in seven games. Kucherov is the playoff scoring leader with 27 points in 18 games.

Center Blake Lizotte has re-signed with the L.A. Kings on a one-year, $800,000 contract extension.

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“Sometimes the stars align for you,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said before the semifinals began.

The stars seem to have favored the Canadiens so far. Robitaille believes that can continue. “Look at what they’ve done so far,” he said. “I was laughing this week, looking at how everybody had those guys counted out in every series. Literally, no one picked them in any series.

“They certainly are playing very well. They found a way to just come together at the right time. To watch them, there’s no room on the ice. They’re playing like they believe in what they’re doing. They’re not giving up anything up the middle. The goalie is making all the big saves.”

Seems like old times — maybe even time to dig out those parade plans.

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Canadiens vs. Lightning.
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)


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