NHL·Analysis

Canadiens confident underdogs heading into Stanley Cup semifinals against Las Vegas Golden Knights

The surging Montreal Canadiens are entering the Stanley Cup semifinal series against the Las Vegas Golden Knights tonight at 9 p.m. ET with confidence despite being the underdogs.

'We have a lot of belief,' says Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher ahead of tonight's game

The surging Montreal Canadiens are entering their Stanley Cup semifinal series against the Las Vegas Golden Knights with a high level of confidence despite being the underdogs. Montreal last made it this far in 2014. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The Montreal Canadiens realize most observers don't believe they have much of a chance at beating the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the National Hockey League semifinals starting tonight.

After all, the Canadiens qualified for the post-season with the worst record of any playoff team. Montreal won just 24 games in the regular season, compared to a league-leading 40 for Las Vegas.

And yes, Las Vegas is a perennial contender – advancing to the NHL semifinals in three of the last four seasons –compared to the visiting Canadiens, who last made it this far in 2014.

With a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line, the Golden Knights are the undeniable favourites. The Canadiens are underdogs, again.

"That would be a problem if we didn't have the belief in our locker-room," said Montreal alternate captain Brendan Gallagher. "The perception of our group doesn't mean a whole lot outside the locker-room. It's more so just how we feel inside of it.

"As of now, we have a lot of belief, and we hope that continues."

The puck drops tonight at the T-Mobile Center – in the heart of Sin City on the Las Vegas Strip – in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. The game starts at 9 p.m. ET and will be covered by CBC and CBCSports.ca.

The winner will face the victor of the other NHL semifinal between the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Islanders lead that series 1-0.

Ignoring the doubters

A decade has passed since a Canadian team appeared in the Stanley Cup Final when riots erupted in downtown Vancouver after the Canucks fell in seven games to the Boston Bruins.

This time around, the Canadiens vow to block out all the background noise and focus on proving correct those who believe in them.

"I don't really care too much about what other people say," Montreal centre Nick Suzuki told reporters before boarding the flight to Vegas. "I have all the confidence in the world in this group and how we can play."

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The underdog role is nothing new to the Canadiens. Buoyed by vintage goaltending from Carey Price, the Canadiens overcame a 3-1 deficit in the first round to eliminate the star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games.

They then proceeded to sweep the favoured Winnipeg Jets in four games to claim the North Division crown.

'It's going to be a great test'

"You're foolish if you look at their record and make a judgment," Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer said of the Canadiens. "We have a lot of respect for their game and how they're playing.

"They're playing with a lot of confidence. They've got a world-class goalie. It's going to be a great test."

Much like the Canadiens, the Golden Knights score by committee, but they possess more star power up front in Mark Stone and former Montreal captain Max Pacioretty.

The Golden Knights – fresh off eliminating Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche in six games – attack in waves off the rush and punish the opposition with their bruising style of play.

"We expect it to be a hotly contested series," said Montreal interim head coach Dominique Ducharme. "When you get to the semifinals, you're facing teams that have good momentum and confidence. It's expected.

"We like our team. We like the way our team was built. We like the mix of speed, size, experience, youth, and enthusiasm. Regardless of the team we're playing, you need to be at your best."

Goaltending battle

In goal, Price has the best save percentage (.935) of any netminder in the playoffs. In this series, he will clash with another legend in Marc-Andre Fleury, a Vezina Trophy finalist for the league's top goalie.

The only knock on Fleury? His tendency to surrender rebounds. That presents an opportunity for Gallagher and fellow Montreal veteran Corey Perry, who are both known for scoring greasy goals in heavy traffic.

Price, perhaps best known as the goalie who backstopped Canada to gold at the Sochi Olympics, and Gallagher are the only players remaining from the Montreal team that lost the 2014 Eastern Conference Final to the New York Rangers.

"It took a lot to get back here," Gallagher said. "You don't know when your next opportunity is going to be, so you need to take advantage of these things.

"We have a good group of guys – a good mix of veterans and youth – that are very excited with this opportunity. And I think we're going to take advantage."

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