Montreal has Canadians dreaming of Cup return

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MONTREAL (Reuters) - An astonishing post-season surge by the Montreal Canadiens is boosting the prospect that a Canadian team will bring the Stanley Cup home to the hockey-mad nation for the first time in nearly two decades.

Still basking in the glow of Canada's hockey gold at the Vancouver Games, Montreal's run has provided an unexpected bonus for a country that treats the game as religion.

Not since the Canadiens lifted the last of their record 24 Stanley Cups in 1993 has Lord Stanley's famous mug been paraded through the streets of a Canadian city.

Now, Canadians are sensing it may be time to pop the champagne.

The Canadiens opened their playoff party by pushing aside the Eastern Conference's top-seeded Washington Capitals before bouncing the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Both of the series went the full seven games, prompting Canadians from Newfoundland to Victoria to rally behind the "The Little Team that Could."

Sneaking into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, eighth-seeded Montreal is led by an undersized trio of forwards (Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez) popularly known as "The Smurfs."

Yet no one has come up bigger in the post-season than Jaroslav Halak, a fearless young Slovakian netminder who has many Canadians believing what was unthinkable a month ago.

The joy ride continues Sunday when the Canadiens face-off against either the Boston Bruins or Philadelphia Flyers in Game One of the Eastern Conference finals. The Flyers play Boston in a decisive Game Seven on Friday.

The Western Conference finals also open Sunday with top-seeded San Jose hosting number two Chicago.

"We heard a lot of criticism," said Cammalleri, who leads the playoffs in scoring with 12 goals. "We were too small to play a whole season, we weren't going to be big enough to get to the playoffs on and on.

"We're not there yet (Stanley Cup finals) but we're starting to have some success and it feels pretty good."

The underdog Canadiens have displayed no shortage of grit fighting back from 3-1 down in the opening round to shock Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals then going toe-to-toe against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins and delivering the knockout on the champions' home ice.

With seven goals against Pittsburgh, Cammalleri tied a team record for goals in a single playoff series, adding his name to a list that includes franchise greats Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Guy Lafleur and Marcel Bonin.

But it is Halak, an icy cool ninth round draft choice, who has grabbed the playoff spotlight with his spectacular play.

He is already being compared to Montreal goaltending icons Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden, who also came from nowhere to lead the Canadiens to Stanley Cups.

(Writing by Steve Keating in Tulsa, Oklahoma; editing by Steve Ginsburg)