Game 2 on Friday was the most complete playoff effort by the Montreal Canadiens since they won the Stanley Cup in 1993. It really could not have gone any better as the Canadiens evened their series 1-1 with the Philadelphia Flyers. The only prediction one could make heading into Game 3 — it could not possibly go as well.
The Canadiens again put in a strong effort, but they were unable to solve Carter Hart as they fell to Philadelphia 1-0.
- Jesperi Kotkaniemi is 20 years old. Depending how you want to look at it, time-wise, he’s starting his third season in the NHL or finishing his second season. In an odd way, when you’ve had five months off to work on things, perhaps saying it’s Kotkaniemi’s third season is factually wrong, but spiritually right. When Kotkaniemi went back to Finland in the summer to heal from a spleen injury, he also worked diligently on his leg strength, repeatedly doing squats. He had to because he had a telling weakness that was there for everyone to see. He couldn’t stay on his feet in puck battles. There just was not enough strength. He looked like a young fawn on the ice like Bambi. Suddenly, with a lot of work in the backyard and the natural progression of strength that age brings, Kotkaniemi is a beast out there. And it’s changing everything in his game. Now he fights for the puck and wins it. Now he has the puck on his stick and can find a player to pass to while holding off a checker. Now he skates up ice and carries the puck easily instead of losing it. This is why you do not write a player off at 20. This is why you don’t make too harsh an evaluation until his body matures — and his game matures. No one knows the ceiling of the Habs’ third pick overall in 2018, but we can now know that he has not found it yet. Kotkaniemi leads the team in goals with four in seven games this August post-season. When he broke for camp in July, many thought he wouldn’t even make the team. Earlier, no one knew if he would even bother to come back. This is the most positive development for the organization in a long time. To find a player who is controlling the game from the middle of the ice is tremendously valuable. He has been the best forward on the club and with his upside wide open, this is exactly what the organization needed.
- Another performance for the Canadiens to be proud of was the first defensive pair, especially in the first period, as the Canadiens had to six minutes of penalties to kill to the Flyers zero. The bulk of the time Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot were on the ice handling all the battles down low. Weber’s play seems to be rubbing off on Chiarot as he has become a defender who is just looking nasty out there. He’s destroying some big opponents with fearlessness. The Canadiens have been looking for a first pair left-side man since Andrei Markov left the club. It looks like they already have one in Chiarot for the length of his contract. He looks more than prepared to carry this load. When Alexander Romanov joins the club next season, and if Brett Kulak can keep up his improved play with Jeff Petry, the Canadiens could be much better defensively than they have been for the last three years.
- The Canadiens did a terrific job on the penalty kill throughout the contest, making the Flyers power-play — which concluded the season in March at a 40 per cent clip — continue to struggle in August. The Flyers were zero for six on the night, allowing the Canadiens to stay in the contest through to the end. It’s hard to gain momentum in a game when you are seemingly in the penalty box all night. For the Canadiens, though, that is their script in these playoffs: play low-event hockey and stay in the game. For example, in the first two periods, the chances were listed as three for each team. That’s a dull game, and the Habs are perfectly happy to play it relying on their world-class goalie and a little bit of luck around the net.
- And that brings us to the goat of the game — and that was the Canadiens’ lack of puck luck. The Habs hit iron four times in the contest. Nick Suzuki hit it twice and the other young centre Kotkaniemi hit two posts as well. The final result for those who didn’t watch the game will think that Montreal did nothing offensively. For those who watched, they know half an inch to the inside a couple times out of four and the Canadiens could have won the game. It makes no sense in a tight game like this with very few mistakes in it to make any players wear goat horns. It was a disciplined game with almost no odd-man rushes, so picking out minor Habs’ errors or frustrations is more nitpicking than fair. The puck just didn’t fall the right direction on some well-taken shots to corners. That’s hockey. It means nothing, except you lost when you could have just as easily won. On to the next one down two games to one.
- In the morning of Game 3, the Canadiens tried to do something special for Carey Price. It was his 33rd birthday Sunday and they were lavishing him with attention. In true Price fashion, he responded: “Let’s worry about tonight’s game instead.” Price is not much for this type of ceremony. He is all business 99 per cent of the time, and he is certainly all business on game day in the playoffs. Speaking of Price’s age — 33 — one remembers how many detractors said by now that he would be washed up. On the contrary, he entered Game 3 with a post-season save percentage of .953. He is perhaps looking as good as he ever has, and he is the number one reason that the Habs are competing in the second round of the post-season with more skill and confidence than anyone could have expected. The organization is already in a bonus situation no matter what happens: the goalie is hot, the aging Weber looks strong and young, the new first-pair accomplice Ben Chiarot is playing the best hockey of his career, and the two young buck centres, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, are getting valuable experience. None of this was expected. All of it is positive.