Game 7. As a fan, it’s what you dream of — for your team to be in the big game. It’s all on the line and you can’t wait to see who is going to be the hero.
The Montreal Canadiens weren’t supposed to be here. They looked out of the series after game four, so in a way, that they were standing for a final 60 minutes for game seven meant they were already heroes. Such is the nature of sports that on the other side, where they also won three games, no one was being hailed as a hero.
Who would carry that mantle of heroism in truth was decided on Monday night in Toronto, and the Canadiens were the victors, saving their best for last in a 3-1 win in game seven.
They all made this series win happen, but Carey Price carried the torch and he did not have failing hands. He held it high himself. Price improved on an impressive .941 in series deciding games. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews taught Montreal how to play hockey in the regular season. Price got his revenge in the playoffs.
The numbers are so amazing that they are almost not to be believed. Marner and Matthews in the regular season had a 16-per cent shooting percentage. In the playoffs, Price shut down the pair to 1.6 per cent. Price had a save percentage of .984 against two of the best in the game. By the end of the series, he seemed to have Marner afraid to even try a shot.
What happened to the Leafs was, with their two best getting shut down, the rest of the offence got sucked into a vacuum. The John Tavares injury was vital, as well, but the story was the Leafs could not solve this goalie who just ramps it up for the playoffs.
The last four regular seasons of Price are .907. The last playoffs are .933, .936, and the one he is having now which is off to a .929. After the game, he was asked why he is so good in these pressure situations. He said, “It’s fun”.
In all of the games of this series, even the previous three victories, the Canadiens allowed a lot of shots and scoring chances. They were on the back foot for the three losses and at least one of the wins as well. However, in game seven, they put it all together and gave the Maple Leafs almost nothing.
After two periods, the high-danger scoring chances were three for the Canadiens and zero for the Leafs. All of that firepower for one of the best offensive teams in the league, and for 40 minutes, the Leafs got not even a single dangerous chance.
The Canadiens do not have a mobile defence, but they do have a defence that can wear you down in time, and that is what happened in the series. It took a while for the get-you-through-the-playoffs part to kick into gear. That’s what physical hockey is all about. It takes time, and the Canadiens got back into the series just before it was going to be over.
Ben Chiarot was the leading man for ice time in the contest, continuing to win puck battles while playing it physically against Leafs forwards who began to look less hungry as time went on. Chiarot doesn’t head-man it well, but he found enough nearby puck support to find options to help him after the puck battle was won.
Credit to Dominique Ducharme to understand that he does not have a mobile puck-moving defensive corps, so he made sure to create a system that the forwards were close enough to provide support.
Credit to Ducharme, as well, for getting his third pair on the ice more than in game six when they top two pairs were so taxed in the overtime, the shots on goal and analytics revealed that that Kotkaniemi goal was not at all what was expected.
It’s always interesting to look at next season, so with that mind, at the moment, it is hard to imagine that an offer is coming for Tomas Tatar to stay in Montreal. The Philip Danault line was assigned to take care of the defending. They did that so well that the great Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner could do very little. However, it wasn’t Tatar who kept his spot. The series turned when Tatar was replaced by Jake Evans on the line.
Evans doesn’t provide a lot of offence, but in a better-constructed team of the future, that Danault line shouldn’t be thought of as a top line, but a line that defends first against the league’s best. In a better-constructed team, it’s Nick Suzuki’s line that becomes the clear number one providing the point-per-game hopes.
Evans is a battler and that’s what you need against the best lines. You have to beat them for pucks when you have a chance, because the next phases of the process are not good if they’re holding onto the puck and you’re now chasing.
Evans could be a regular on that line. It’s easy to see. What a bonus to get this type of player in the seventh round. Injuries happen, though, and Tatar will no doubt get a chance for some redemption soon enough.
It’s been fascinating to watch the progression of Jesperi Kotkaniemi in this series. The 20-year-old centre seems to be more of a physical centre than a wizard in the middle. This entire time, no one thought that Kotkaniemi was going to develop physically to the point where some of his best attributes would be puck battles, forward-one forechecking, defensive acumen and net-front presence.
For Kotkaniemi, the actual part where he develops into a wizard with the puck hasn’t been the part that has changed all that much into his third season. He scores, certainly, but the goals are hard-working, crash-the-front-of-the net goals. Most of his playoff goals are winning the puck in front of the net and tapping it home.
Kotkaniemi’s entire profile has not gone as thought, but the big point is that he is developing into an important player and an effective one. The offensive improvements will come soon too. He has a great snap shot, but he does need to release it faster.
He has outstanding vision, but has not shown it yet as much as he will one day. However, imagine a player who has found his offensive touch, then combine it with all this physical ability and work rate. It will be fun.
You gotta be kidding. Not a chance.
It will be interesting to see how the Quebec government plays it out in the second round for attendance for the Canadiens. Montreal will have their first home game at the end of the weekend, and with the case counts going down under 300 on Monday and the vaccination rate hitting over 60 per cent for the first dose in the province, there is a chance that it increases.
It was 2,500 fans for game six, paying around $200 originally and then often selling them for $4,000 on StubHub — an important little bonus for the Canadiens’ ownership, who took a bath financially during COVID-19 with no fans for 14 months.
Premier Francois Legault is a huge Canadiens fan, and if he sees this as a safe option, expect that to be upped to perhaps $5,000 for the arrival of the Winnipeg Jets.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.