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Fans say seeing Habs at home in final a once in a lifetime experience

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MONTREAL — Even with the arena at a fraction of its capacity and despite their team trailing for more than 58 minutes, the fans at Montreal's Bell Centre were never quiet on Friday night. 

For some of the 3,500 fans at the Bell Centre, seeing the first Habs home game in a Stanley Cup final series since 1993 — as they faced off against Tampa Bay in Game 3 of the series — was a once in a lifetime experience.

"Dream of a lifetime, it's like a bucket list," said Toros Assadourian, who travelled from Toronto to cheer for Montreal. 

While tickets were sold to season ticket holders through a lottery system, tickets on resale websites started at more than $3,000. 

Despite the arena being at just under 17 per cent of it's usual capacity, fans said it felt like there many more.

"For the amount of people that are attending tonight, the energy and the vibe seems like there's so many more, so it's really exciting," said Lauren Wolfe during the intermission between the second and third period. "It's definitely going down in history."

The long wait to see the team — which has won more Stanley Cups than any other with 24 — back in the final after so long added to the experience for some.

"It's been almost 30 years since we've been in a Cup final, so it's very exciting to be here and to support the team," said Neil Erlick, Wolfe's husband. "I have a son the same age that I was when we won it, so it's exciting to see that now."

While the Canadiens would ultimately lose 6-3 — putting them one loss away from elimination — most fans appeared to remain optimistic well into the third period,.

With flashing lights in empty seats, as well as wristbands worn by fans and fans standing and waving towels, at times sections of the arena looked nearly full.

For fans, it was the sound — the collective gasps, cheers, groans and boos — that made it sound like there were more people in attendance.  

"It's very loud in there, if we were 21,000, it might feel like 100,000, it feels good," said fan Nishan Minhas between the second and third periods. 

Like many other others, he was still optimistic that the team would come back. 

"We've been down all year, all playoffs long, and I'm optimistic that they'll make a game of it," he said. 

As one sign carried by a fan said, "it's not over."

Some fans started to leave when Tampa's Tyler Johnson scored with less than five minutes left, making it a 5-2 game, that stopped after the Habs' Corey Perry scored 39 seconds later. 

But after Tampa Bay's Blake Coleman scored the team's sixth goal on an empty net, even the fan with the "it's not over" banner left.

Brian Reid and his wife Michelle were some of the only people wearing Tampa Bay sweaters in the arena.

Reid, who said he'd only seen one other person wearing the visiting team's colours, described the environment as intimidating. 

Reid, who started cheering for Tampa when Mikhail Sergachev, who was initially drafted by Montreal and now plays for Tampa Bay, stayed with his family in Windsor, said he was pleased with the way his team was playing. 

"Tampa's a strong team, they've got what's going right now," he said. 

Some fans at Friday's game said they would have liked there to have been more people in the audience. 

"In my opinion, there should have been more tonight," said fan Stephane Lefebvre between periods. He said other countries with worse pandemic situations than Quebec are allowing larger gatherings and that more fans might have helped give the Habs the piece that was missing in their game

The Montreal Canadiens organization had asked the provincial government for the permission to admit 10,500 fans — 50 per cent of capacity — but were denied.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's public health director, told Radio-Canada's morning show on Friday that he understood the frustration of fans, but he said the province isn't ready to hold massive indoor events, saying the vaccination levels and the presence of the contagious Delta variant make it impossible.

Still, Lefebvre said he was happy to be at the game. 

"It's not everyday we can experience a Stanley Cup finale, so for us it's a privilege, it's incredible," he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July, 3, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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