In a city where hockey is a religion, it was Montreal's own miracle on ice - quarter-final version.
The Montreal Canadiens, deemed not to have a prayer at the outset of the playoffs, gave the city that loves them a stunning victory Wednesday night. The Canadiens, No. 8 seed when the first playoff round began, dethroned the No. 1-seeded Washington Capitals.
The score was 2 to 1; the effect, magic.
Strangers traded high fives, cars honked in unison like groups of geese, and fans unloosed their joy across the city after the game in Washington.
"We have to have hope for something, and that hope is the Montreal Canadiens," 31-year-old fan Eric Lauzon said outside the Champs sports bar on St. Laurent Blvd., which reached ear-splitting noise levels when the Canadiens scored. "The Canadiens really are a religion, and tonight I'm a disciple."
Hockey runs through Montreal's veins and pumps straight to its heart, and when the Canadiens are at their best, their game transcends language, race and class. Their glory years behind them, the team wasn't even expected to make it to the playoffs this year. But the team's doggedness and scratched-out victories against the dominant Capitals won over the city.
In recent weeks, bleu-blanc-rouge Habs flags have appeared on car windows. Nearly 2.5 million viewers at peak time watched Montreal beat the Capitals on RDS in Monday's Game 6. All-sports radio and TV shows have talked about little else. Pundits and fans alike weigh in on each play, pass and penalty with an obsession bordering on hysteria.
To some, the religious imagery is no exaggeration. Theology professor Olivier Bauer actually teaches a course on the theme of Canadiens as religion at the University of Montreal. And he's found plenty of supporting evidence since the start of the series.
"In the 70s, [when Stanley Cup victories were routine]fans didn't have to have faith - they had the knowledge the Canadiens would win," he said yesterday. "This time, there was no hope at the outset of the series. What has happened has entered the realm of miracle, of resurrection."
In an editorial cartoon in yesterday's Journal de Montréal, Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, whose masterful performance wowed the entire province in Game 6, was depicted as Jesus Christ in a Canadiens jersey and goalie mask, surrounded by adoring apostles.
"We've reached the apogee, the pinnacle," Prof. Bauer said.
At the end of the night last night, a team with dismal expectations and die-hard fans defeated the NHL's top regular-season team. The Habs overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Capitals. It's still only a quarter final victory, with the Stanley Cup may still only be a distant vision. Montreal now faces star Sidney Crosby and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. Still, last night's triumph was enough to create a city of believers.
"What do we have to believe in these days?" said Mr. Lauzon, sporting a Canadiens jersey as he stood surrounded by friends. "My girlfriend, my buddies, and the Habs."