MONTREAL – It’s a city that suddenly believes in miracles.
Following an improbable, come-from-behind, seventh-game series win against a far superior opponent, Montreal Canadiens fans couldn’t help but put herald a little divine intervention.
Montreal’s adulation was directed at Jaroslav Halak – who began the season as a backup goalie and has quickly become a secular saint in this hockey-mad city. The Slovak netminder was depicted as Jesus Christ in a local newspaper where he was drawn Wednesday in a Habs jersey, goalie mask, and flowing white robes.
Several thousand frenzied fans celebrated Wednesday’s 2-1 heart-stopper over the Washington Capitals. Crowds spilled out of bars cheering, dancing in the streets, snarling traffic, and some hopped onto a flatbed truck in the city’s downtown core.
Police in riot gear watched the scene warily. In a city notorious for a history of hockey-related violence, people tossed bottles and hurled epithets at officers as a helicopter buzzed overhead. Police fired back with some tear-gas canisters.
Authorities braced for a possible repeat of the looting that followed championship wins in 1986 and 1993, and after early-round victories in more recent years. At least two arrests were reported late Wednesday, but the post-game reaction was marked mainly by peaceful revelry.
Chants of, “Go Habs Go!” could be heard throughout the downtown core, along with blasts from car horn and the city’s trademark battle cry of, “Ole! Ole!”
The object of the city’s affection was the man who brought their hockey team _ the unheralded Canadiens _ a Game 7 victory, ousting the much-favoured Washington Capitals.
Some joked Halak might gain sainthood after leading the Canadiens into the next round. He stopped 131 of 134 shots in the final three games of the series.
“Halak was just unbelievable, they deserved to win that series,” said McGill University student John Cassels, emerging from a Crescent Street bar.
“The team played just phenomenal, they found ways to win and Halak is definitely a first star.”
Even the clergy was getting into the act.
A Roman Catholic priest from Trois-Rivieres was on TV explaining why he had Habs logos embedded all over his stole, the ceremonial scarf that runs down his robes. He said he was praying for the best team to win… but had expressed hope the good Lord might side with his Habs.
Another newspaper Wednesday drew the diminutive goalie, Halak, as an acrobat from the Cirque du soleil.
Those editorial cartoons summed up the sentiments of a hockey-mad city hoping for a monumental upset. Before the Canadiens’ win, no eighth-place team had ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit to unseat a top-seeded team.
The Habs’ rabid fan base had other problems. Just getting a seat in a bar in Montreal was a challenge.
The sidewalks on Mont-Royal Avenue were bustling before gametime with pedestrians scouring in vain up and down the street for a bar with a free seat.
The manager of Bar Normand stood in the doorway, waving his arms to declare his establishment filled to capacity.
But he offered a message of good-natured optimism as he turned customers away. His place would be open for business should the Habs make Round Two.
“Pittsburgh. Friday,” he shouted, as disappointed fans walked away.
Shortly before 10 p.m., his optimistic prediction had become a reality.
“It’s just amazing to see this,” Cassels said as jubilant fans overtook a downtown intersection, setting off fireworks.
“It’s like the entire city is behind this team. This how hockey should be, it validates everything I know about the game.”
Habs faithful said they were buoyed by the recent wins and, before the game, they almost unanimously predicted victory. Among them was Academy award-winning film director DenysArcand.
“I’m going to try to get in the last two periods and I think they’ve got a chance,” Arcand told The Canadian Press before the game.
Montreal police were keeping an especially close watch on Wednesday’s developments. Crowd-control officers in helmets wielded shields, trying to control the crush of people.
There were at least two arrests as people tossed bottles and other projectiles at police, including at least one street pylon. A scuffle also broke out in the crowd.
Police have had to deal in the past with rowdiness and vandalism following key Canadiens wins, including an infamous riot following the 1993 Stanley Cup victory.
In 2008, a first-round win over the Bruins resulted in a night of looting and arson against police vehicles that ended with 56 arrests.
Police say those hooligans shouldn’t be confused with Canadiens fans. None of those arrested in 2008 had actually been watching the game, police said.
“If people are just there to celebrate this evening, that won’t be a problem,” Sgt. Ian Lafreniere of the Montreal police said earlier Wednesday.
“But if people want to take advantage of a large crowd and do something criminal, that won’t be tolerated.”
Such excitement over a first-round series would once have been unthinkable in Montreal.
This is a city that celebrated eight Stanley Cup championships in 12 seasons between 1967-68 and 1978-79; but, since their last Cup win in 1993, it’s become a rare occurrence for the Habs to make it past the first round.
“This is as good as it’s going to get,” yelled Marc Tremblay, one of the many young revellers, too young to remember even the last Stanley Cup parade in this city.
While most appeared in their late teens and early 20s, some of the more seasoned fans were taking the win in stride. One fellow who appeared to be in his early 40s, and who was actually old enough to remember the Canadiens being a regular Stanley Cup winner, said: “Come on, this is just the first round.”
Any hope of advancing this year seemed lost until two outstanding performances from Halak, who started the season as a backup.
Le Journal de Montreal paid tribute to Halak by superimposing his face, jersey and mask on a painting of Jesus surrounded by adoring apostles straining to touch his robes.
Following the Game 6 win, the tabloid also ran a front-page headline in Slovak in his honour.
The level of excitement before Wednesday’s game was evident in the top trending topics on Twitter’s Canada website. They included Halak and Semyon Varlamov, the Washington Capitals’ goalie.
Meanwhile, the Capitals were forced to shut down their official message board on their website after the club’s staff said the conversation had become unruly and vulgar.
Some commentators on a Washington Post blog expressed suspicions that, maybe, the team wanted to silence angry fans wondering how the series had gone to seven games.
(With files from Alexander Panetta, Donald McKenzie and Andy Blatchford)