Montreal finished with eight more losses than wins in the regular season and was the last NHL team to earn a playoff berth.
Now, the Canadiens, directed by a fill-in coach, Luke Richardson, who used to play defense for the Flyers, are one win away from stunning Vegas and reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993.
The Habs took a lead of three games to two in the semifinals Tuesday night with a 4-1 win in Vegas. They can wrap up the series Thursday in Montreal.
Richardson, 52, a Montreal assistant coach the last three seasons, is 2-1 since replacing interim head coach Dominique Ducharme after Ducharme tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. Ducharme replaced the fired Claude Julien in late February, when the Canadiens were 9-5-4.
Montreal (24-21-11 in the regular season) has been the hungrier, faster team in a series that Vegas (40-14-2), which tied Colorado for the most points in the regular season, was expected to dominate. Vegas had 82 points in the regular season — 23 more than the Canadiens (59), who had just one more point than the sad-sack Flyers.
“Everybody’s feeling confident. Everybody knows their role, and we’re playing exceptionally well,” Richardson, whose team upset Toronto and Winnipeg in the first two rounds, told reporters in Vegas. “That’s going to continue whether we’re in the lead, whether we’re behind, tied, in overtime, start of game. That’s what we want, to keep that same mindset.”
After a 21-year career as a physical, stay-at-home defender, including five seasons with the Flyers from 1997 to 2002, Richardson spent three years as an Ottawa assistant. He later was the head coach of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators for four seasons before returning to the NHL as an Islanders assistant.
He has been a Montreal assistant since 2018-19.
“I think coaching in the minors helps,” Richardson said. “I had four years there of running a bench, and for me that has really given me a lot of help. ... All those experiences, you boil them together, and it gives you insight on different parts of the game, preparation for the game.”
The goaltending of Carey Price; the experience and strong play of Shea Weber, Tyler Toffoli, Eric Staal, Corey Perry, and Joel Armia; and the pestering play of Brendan Gallagher have been critical in the Canadiens’ run. Ditto a stellar penalty kill and the blossoming of youngsters Cole Caufield — Montreal selected him 15th overall in the 2019 draft, one pick after the Flyers took defenseman Cam York — Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Nick Suzuki.
Caufield, 20, has three goals in the series against Vegas. He and his teammates do not want to return to the Strip for a Game 7. If they don’t, it will be an emotional series win for the Canadiens, especially for Richardson, whose daughter, Daron, 14, committed suicide in 2010.
After a 3-2 overtime win over Vegas in Game 3, Richardson tapped the DIFD heart pin on his lapel. The initials stand for the “Do It For Daron” youth mental health program that Richardson and his wife, Stephanie, started in their daughter’s memory.