Cole Caufield has played in front of exactly zero fans in his young NHL career.

A packed-to-the-rafters Bell Centre would have exploded when the Canadiens rookie sniper buried his first NHL goal in overtime earlier this month. And Montreal’s home arena would have been equally loud some 48 hours later when Caufield again found the back of the net in the extra period.

COVID-19 restrictions made all of that impossible — Canada’s seven NHL rinks have been devoid of spectators throughout the league’s pandemic-shortened season — but the 20-year-old’s teammates did their best to describe one of hockey’s best atmospheres.

“Pretty surreal,” Caufield said of what he’s been told. “You can’t really put it into words.”

He won’t have to wait much longer to get a taste himself.

Montreal’s 4-3 OT victory in Toronto on Thursday, one that kept the club alive in its first-round playoff series with the Maple Leafs, paved the way for 2,500 fans to be allowed inside the Bell Centre for Saturday’s Game 6— the first Canadian NHL crowd since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

“It’s going to be electric,” Caufield said Friday. “You can just count on those fans to be passionate and dedicated to being behind us, giving every ounce of excitement they can.”

The Quebec government gave the thumbs up for a fraction of the 21,273-seat venue to be opened to paying customers a day after the province’s curfew, which had been in place since Jan. 9, was lifted, along with a loosening of other COVID-19 rules.

“The pandemic’s hit the people here as hard as anywhere in our country, and the people deserve this,” Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher said. “They were disciplined, they listened to what was being asked of them.

“And these are the rewards that were earned.”

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A trickle of NHL teams in the U.S. were permitted to allow a percentage of fans into buildings as the 56-game season progressed and vaccine rates outpaced those in Canada, but every playoff contest south of the border has included boisterous scenes that have made both players and would-be attendees up north jealous.

Canadian franchises have done their best with artificial crowd noise. It’s just not even close to the same.

“Having some people back in the building is a sign of progress for our country,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said after his club’s morning skate Saturday. “We’ve seen down in the U.S. the emotion and how that can change an environment.

“I think in this case here … it’s less about the game and our sport and the playoffs and all of that, but more just about some progress being made in the country. I think that’s a really good sign for everybody.”

Montreal winger Tomas Tatar, whose team will again be facing elimination on Saturday, down 3-2 in a best-of-seven matchup of Original Six rivals, can’t wait to see people peppering — masked and physically distanced, of course — the Bell Centre’s seats.

“It’s huge,” he said. “We know the number is not where we would want it to be.

“But I think the 2,500 people will make a lot of difference.”

Leafs forward Jason Spezza said the crowd of roughly 12 per cent capacity will be a good sign for both sports and society.

“We’ve played in front of people before,” he said with a smile. “We should be comfortable with it. It’s a great step towards what the future may hold here in terms of getting back to normal.”

Montreal interim head coach Dominique Ducharme agreed that having people in the building to cheer is step toward life returning — at least in a small way — to the way things were.

“With the virus and all the restrictions, to be able to see people there is not only for hockey,” he said. “It’s a good sign for people here in Quebec and Montreal and Canada.”

Tickets to Game 6, which the Canadiens prioritized for season-seat holders, luxury-suite clients and corporate partners, are pricey on the resale market. The least expensive pair, relatively speaking, was listed a shade under $2,500 on one website late Friday afternoon, but Spezza said he won’t be surprised to see some blue and white jerseys dotting the crowd.

“It never ceases to amaze me the support that the Leafs get on the road,” said the 37-year-old.

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Caufield helped make Game 6 a reality when he intercepted an errant pass in Thursday’s overtime and raced the other way with Nick Suzuki on a 2-on-0 break. The young linemates played catch with the puck as they moved in on Toronto netminder Jack Campbell before Caufield — usually the trigger man throughout his decorated amateur career — passed up his final opportunity to shoot and instead found Suzuki for the winner.

“I gave it to Nick, I got it back,” Caufield recalled. “The best part about that was I think the goalie thought I was going to shoot.”

The Leafs dropped the opener of the series at home before winning three straight, including two in Montreal, only to allow the Canadiens back into the fight by falling behind 3-0 and failing to match their opponent’s intensity early in Game 5.

“You’re going to have ups and downs,” said Toronto defenceman Zach Bogosian, who won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. “We controlled a chunk of the series there for a while, and they had a good pushback. That’s the beauty of playoff hockey. You’re not doing the right thing if you don’t have pressure.

“These are the moments you live for.”

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Playing the Canadiens for the first time in the post-season since 1979, the Leafs are looking for their first series victory in 17 years. The fan base has plenty of scars from past collapses and disappointments, but Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said his players — many of whom have nothing to do with the failures of yesteryear — are focused on the present.

“This group loves being with each other and we want to continue on,” he said. “That’s the motivation, that’s the pressure. It’s very difficult to win a series, very difficult to end a team’s season. We’ve got an opportunity to do that again [in Game 6].

“We feel good about our team, we feel good about our chances, we feel good about how we’ve played in this series. We just have to go out and execute.”

Ducharme told his players this week they have an opportunity to do something special in this series.

But regardless of the result, Saturday night’s game will be special as Canadian hockey fans head into an NHL arena for the first time in nearly 15 months.

“We can see light at the end of the tunnel,” Ducharme said. “It’s really positive. It’s great for hockey.

“But it’s a great sign for the population, in general.”

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