The Canadiens won game one, but this was their best game of the series. Montreal showed a lot of pride and laid it all out when it would have been easy to feel defeated. They did more good things in this game than the last three combined.
Heart rates were up and breath was short in a game five that was a thriller, and the Canadiens stayed alive with a 4-3 overtime win in Toronto.
Breathe easy, Habs fans. There will be a game six.
Time for your bi-monthly reminder that Jesperi Kotkaniemi is 20 years of age. It may seem silly from an organizational handling of a contract that his entry-level is already over because he’s played parts of three seasons, but you cannot ignore that he continues to progress.
Kotkaniemi had his second goal of the series, and he did it using that big body of his to earn a chance in front of the net to count. It was a goal just like his first one: get in the dirty area around the paint and work hard to get a stick on it.
Kotkaniemi now has six goals in 14 playoff games. In today’s NHL, that’s a big number for anyone, and it’s certainly an even more notable number for a player who is still one of the 12 youngest players in the league.
So, again, here’s another reminder: a player at 20 has barely begun to mature; a player should be evaluated in full only at around 25 years; great players like Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, and Joe Thornton did not break out until they were 23 to 25. It takes time. Even high draft choices and big prospects have growing pains learning the league and growing into their bodies.
Read more: John Tavares returns to the ice for a skate
One of the big keys to the contest for Montreal in finally looking like they belonged in this series again was how much the club worked to get into the blue paint. They danced in the perimeter for three games, making it easy for a goalie who was looking like a Vezina Trophy candidate getting challenged with few difficult shots. The result was they had four goals in three games to lose, versus four games in one game to win.
The Canadiens also started to lay out big checks, looking to slow down players on Toronto who were playing without fear. The hits were especially effective against Rasmus Sandin. He was drilled by Corey Perry, leading to the game’s first goal, and he heard footsteps the rest of the night.
Sandin was directly responsible for the giveaway leading to Joel Armia’s opening goal. After that, the tremendous work in the dirty areas started for Montreal. The second goal was a mad scramble, with three Canadiens players in the crease working hard. It was Armia who put it home.
The third goal was the same situation as the Canadiens scored from inside the blue paint as Kotkaniemi counted. The club had six high-danger chances inside 10 feet in this one, contrast that against the short-track speed skating laps they skated around the boards in Montreal.
Two other forwards shone once again, and all you can hope for here is that the organization will give this pair a chance to grow and create some chemistry together, not to be pulled apart at the first sign of grief.
Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield could be outstanding together as they continue to grow. The centre is 21 and the right-winger is 20. We knew what Suzuki could do in the playoffs already, and to see his work ethic making a play, knowing he was going to get crushed, is simply a continuation of that building of confidence in him.
Now we are also learning what Caufield can do. He was F1 in the first period, and he, too, knew he was going to get crushed if he went in first. Caufield didn’t delay. He skated as hard as he possibly could to get on it first to continue the offensive zone pressure. There’s a certain unrestricted free agent who could learn this physically demanding commitment from Suzuki and Caufield.
With Caufield, the big worry heading into his pro career was also that with his size, he would be a liability defensively — that he would be able to be pushed off the puck trying to do defensive work that it would hurt his team. This has not been the case at all. What a bonus that Caufield can be trusted in the defensive zone, too. That makes his ice time leap, which will eventually make his offensive production leap as well.
In overtime, all that good work that was seen through the entire contest led to the winner. That’s what it looks like when two talented players get together.
Caufield read the play perfectly to intercept the dangerous Alex Galchenyuk pass at Montreal’s blue line. Suzuki joined the rush. They passed back and forth, and it sure felt like Caufield would shoot, but if you have seen him enough in Wisconsin, you know that when everyone expects that he’s going to shoot, he shocks and passes. Caufield with the late pass to Suzuki and no chance whatsoever for Jack Campbell. The Canadiens live to play another day.
If someone could just tell Carey Price that the playoffs start in October. It’s phenomenal how good he is when the post-season begins compared to the regular season. He is just so dialled in. Price in his last four regular seasons has a pedestrian save percentage of 907. That’s not an impressive number. It’s not terrible, but it sure isn’t ‘world’s greatest goalie’ as his peers keeping calling him.
In the playoffs, it’s a different Price. The last two playoffs, Price had a 933 and a 936. This season, again he has been spectacular. He’s actually been better than his 924. There are far too many spectacular saves in this one to list. Suffice it to say though, that the Canadiens allowed far too many odd-man rushes. Price was the saviour again and again.
The only aspect of the contest that is worth being negative about in one of the better moments for the Canadiens in a long time is, at times, their general lack of belief. There is an ebb and flow to a game, it’s true, but Montreal needs to learn how to carry the contest better. If you are the dominant team in the first, there is no reason to become the dominated one in the third period.
It does not have to turn so significantly all the time for this club. They lose confidence as the game goes. They change their forecheck; they hang back more and let the other club come to them. It does not have to be this way to such a large degree. Keep playing the same way.
For the first time since March 11, 2020, there will be fans at a sporting event in Canada. Mark the date, as May 29,2021 at the Bell Centre will see game six of Canadiens-Maple Leafs series.
That’s 444 days between fans enjoying sports in a public arena in Canada. The Bell Centre will be only 11 per cent capacity due to Quebec government’s restrictions to ensure safety and protocols of social distancing, but it’s a reward for Quebec doing so well in the vaccination phase of COVID-19 recovery.
If you don’t have a ticket already, that reward starts at $1,000 on StubHub.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.