Now there are only 16 teams — and if you can believe it, the Montreal Canadiens are one of them.
Carey Price and the big four on defence were the biggest reasons that the Canadiens won their first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Price was as good as he has been in his career, notching a .947 save percentage in the four games. He received a massive amount of help from his top pairing of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot who were so physical that the Penguins wanted no part of the front of the net by the end of the series.
Chiarot was particularly impressive with a plus-6. The Philadelphia Flyers present a more difficult challenge, especially physically, as they are among the heaviest teams in the league. They are also hot, having won the top seed with three straight wins in the round robin.
This will come down to goaltending again. If Price can finish 50 points ahead of Carter Hart in save percentage, then the Canadiens have a chance. Fifty points is a lot, but Hart has never been down this path before, so let’s see if he is up for the challenge.
In game one, he was, as the Flyers posted a 2-1 win over the Canadiens.
There were many Canadiens that stood out.
One could wax poetic about the hands of Nick Suzuki, the competitive fire of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the best forward on the club Artturi Lehkonen working his tail off, the revival of Brett Kulak, the physicality of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, the suddenly much better work ethic of Jonathan Drouin, the consistently strong goaltending of Carey Price, or even the neutralizing work of Phillip Danault.
But what really stands out is that the 24th-ranked team in the NHL competed extremely well with the top seed in the east.
Many don’t believe the Canadiens should be here in the final 16, but watch the action on the ice: in game one they belonged. It was an even hockey game. The shots were even. The chances were even. The Canadiens just didn’t convert as many.
That’s hockey. The club has again come into the series with a good game plan, thanks to their head coach. The biggest change from the regular season is Montreal has stopped giving up a truckload of odd man rushes every game. There were some nights when the Canadiens were so disappointing for long stretches that they gave up as many as 10 odd-man rushes.
You cannot win giving up a 3-on-2, a 2-on-1 or a breakaway every five minutes of hockey. This seems extremely basic, but the club could not stop it during any one of their eight game winless skids.
The playoffs have shown a much more disciplined club, and much more patient. The defenders have pinched in many times to initiate an extra layer of offence and each time the forward has filled the point smartly. All these improvements are organizational. They are instilled by the coaching staff.
Some things are talent, while some things are game plan. The Canadiens are still limited with their hands and feet, talent-wise, but they sure have their brains working at a top level.
May 18, 2014. That was the day the Canadiens best hope of a Stanley Cup since 1993 ended.
It was the conference finals, and Montreal was favoured to beat the New York Rangers. Sure, there was a series to play still, but when Chris Kreider injured Carey Price by recklessly bowling him over in game one, everyone who ever watched a game of hockey knew what the outcome was going to be.
The Canadiens indeed did lose to the Rangers, who then lost in the finals to the Los Angeles Kings. Six years later, Price was in the net again and clearly that memory came back to him when Derek Grant crashed the crease on a partial breakaway.
Unlike the recklessness of Kreider, this one was on fellow Canadiens player Xavier Ouellet who actually pushed Grant into Montreal’s keeper. That Grant was charging that hard clearly showed what Alain Vigneault‘s plan was again against Price six years later. It’s the same plan that is always implemented against the hot goalie.
You want to stop a goalie who had a .947 save percentage in the first round? Screen him. Deflect pucks in front of him. Charge the crease against him. Just do not let him see the puck as much as is possible.
Vigneault has seen enough of Price to know that he doesn’t want him to get in the zone. He wants him more worried about his own knees than the puck. You win any way you can in the NHL. If Claude Julien was facing a hot goalie, he would do the same thing. That’s hockey.
The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t make life difficult for Price. They didn’t spend much time creating havoc in front of him. This best-of-seven will be different. One could easily predict that this could end in bad blood 10 times more significant than was shed in the qualifying round.
Judging by Price looking like he was going to blocker Grant in the face, but then resisted, this could get very interesting and perhaps chaotic.
The Canadiens have two good defensive pairings these playoffs. Brett Kulak has found his game. He and Jeff Petry are solid. The partnership of Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber is even better.
However, if you want to do something special, you have to have everyone contributing. The pairing of Xavier Ouellet and Victor Mete struggled against the Penguins in round one. In round two, they are having even more trouble against a heavier team.
The Flyers like it physical, and the playoffs are physical. These two just aren’t physical and big enough to maintain their body position, or win puck battles. Mete is an NHLer, but it is also starting to feel like his role may be limited to situations that support his style of play, but he will have to be replaced when the going gets Flyers tough.
It is five games now that this pairing seems mostly overmatched. However, it can be at times that one player looks weak when his partner is weaker. It could also be that Mete would be considerably better with someone else. Something to watch for as the blue line changes with the addition of Alexander Romanov next season.
GM Marc Bergevin has a famous and popular quote that gets repeated often because it’s quite a clever little adage: “Some players get you to the playoffs and some players get you through the playoffs”.
So far, Tomas Tatar looks like he isn’t that good at the ‘through’ part. Tatar is often the best forward on the entire club in the regular season, but in these playoffs it has been a struggle. Tatar with first line minutes, but in five games he does not have a single point. The Habs have managed to find success without his input, but in the long run, you simply cannot succeed with no contribution at all from a first line player.
Another old adage in sports is “your best players have to be your best players.” Tatar needs to be that as soon as now.
The New York Rangers won the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes on Monday night as the NHL dodged a bullet with a top team in the league not winning the lottery.
The Canadiens were expected to be in the mix, but they lost that opportunity to get Lafreniere and the opportunity to pick ninth thanks to the first-round upset over Pittsburgh. Montreal will likely pick 16th unless they advance to the conference finals.
Some are disappointed to not have the nine pick, but it’s really a glass half full situation. If you wish to be negative about it, the player who is picked ninth will no doubt be a better pro than the player who is picked 16th. If you wish to be positive about it, the players for the Canadiens who are experiencing this playoff are getting valuable lessons in being better hockey players and learning what type of effort it takes to find success.
There’s a lot of extra effort and sacrifice involved in the playoffs, and the faster you learn that, the better.
It is especially important for the two centres, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, who will carry these learning moments for the rest of their careers. They’ll develop some belief for next season thanks to these games.
This playoff is especially vital for Kotkaniemi, who is playing his best hockey in 21 months.
The belief in him is elevated again like it was when he broke into the league. The experience gained here is worth the difference between nine and 16 in the draft. There’s nothing like having your top centres start to shine in the playoffs at the age of 20. That alone is worth dropping seven picks. So enjoy the games and enjoy the passion of loving your Montreal Canadiens.