Game two in Winnipeg found the Montreal Canadiens having a chance to take control in their series with the Jets, who were without three extremely important players in Mark Scheifele, Dylan DeMelo, and Paul Stastny. Montreal, meanwhile, was without Jake Evans who is recovering from a concussion.
Winnipeg missed their best centres, falling to the Habs to trail the series by a 2-0 margin.
It’s remarkable what a little rest can do for the body and the mind.
During the last stretch of the season, after COVID-19 forced an 11-day break, the Canadiens were regularly playing four in six and five in eight. The older players suffered as it was just too much on their bodies. Some got injured like Shea Weber, and some just got tired like Corey Perry and Eric Staal. But they’re back and they are cycling better than a washer and dryer. Round and round they go and the Jets can’t get the puck back.
The line of Perry-Staal-Armia is dominating at times. Staal went into game two of the second round tied for the lead in playoff scoring for Montreal with Tyler Toffoli. No one had that as a prediction after a regular season of three points in 21 games. Staal with six points.
The line dominated three straight shifts in the first period, which was needed as Montreal got off to a sluggish start. Sports is constantly surprising. When you can get first line pressure and point production from your fourth line, there’s a chance you can do something special in the playoffs. Long runs always have in it surprises where a team gets a breakout performance somewhere. Often it’s a goalie who comes out of nowhere, but a fourth line producing works, too.
When the Canadiens got off to a tremendous start to the season with a 7-1-2 record, they were scoring shorthanded goals at a rate that made one think they had an extra man, not down a man. Montreal finished the season with nine shorthanded markers in 56 games.
Suddenly in these playoffs, the shorthanded markers are getting vital again to the team’s success. Paul Byron scored down a man to win game one in what might be the prettiest goal of the playoffs as he fell, but kept fighting, then counted over the shoulder of Jack Campbell while being on his knees.
In the second period, with the game looking for its first goal, it was Tyler Toffoli on a two-on-one. He made a perfect toe-drag to buy some time, then beat Connor Hellebuyck to move into the team lead for points in the playoffs.
They must have brought Cole Caufield into the office and had a message for him after game one: Shoot the puck, Cole. He had only nine in his first six games but then in this one, he was firing from everywhere and often. Late in the second period, the Canadiens had only 12 shots and Caufield had five of them. When Caufield was scoring a goal per game for Wisconsin, he actually also shot the puck 10 times per game.
The goals still are not coming for Caufield yet, but importantly, he belongs. He is playing well. He is defensively responsible. This is intense hockey. Joining the NHL, ostensibly, in the playoffs is not easy. Caufield had four goals in 10 games in the regular season; he is still looking for his first in the playoffs in his seven games. It feels like it will come soon, but it also feels like no one should be complaining too much about it. He’s playing well and gaining valuable experience and his team is in the second round of the playoffs.
Ben Chiarot may not be the smoothest player in the league by any stretch offensively, but is he ever a gamer. Chiarot took a hit to make a play all night. The Jets looked like they wanted to drill him every time he carried the puck. He did his job, though. He persevered and had a strong game.
The two top pairings are holding up. After game four against the Leafs, they seemed done, but here we are. Chiarot and Weber are handling their assignments, while Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson are shining brightly. In fact, this is Edmundson’s best hockey of the season. He is playing close to flawless defensive hockey at the moment.
All of that in front of Carey Price, who improved on his playoff save percentage of 929, stopping 30 shots for his fifth straight win. Price was outstanding, but you can’t say any were memorable. That’s because he is so well positioned that everything right now is looking easy for him, especially the glove hand saves. They’re shooting there a lot and Price is lightning fast stopping each one.
Dominique Ducharme is rolling four lines with almost the same ice time for all of them, the top two pairs boxing out beautifully and keeping the Jets to the outside. Ducharme is working in the members of the third pair with one of the top defenders each time, so they’re not out there as a third pair together ever. There is nothing to put in this space in a 2-0 win to lead a series 2-0 heading back to Montreal.
No changes are expected in Montreal to the attendance for games three and four of the North Division final. Quebec has had fewer than 300 cases of COVID-19 for a fifth consecutive day, which is 90 per cent lower than the peak amount of cases for the province in December of 2020. The large drop in case count is what has allowed the premier to feel confident that fans can attend events safely with social distancing intact.
Quebec also has moved to an impressive 64 per cent of its population vaccinated with a first dose. Despite that, Premier Legault says the priority remains to be vigilant and safe, and no hints have been made that the attendance could get higher soon.
Game three is on Sunday night with tickets on sale for season ticket holders who are able to buy a total of 2500 which is 11 per cent capacity in the Bell Centre. The fans can buy them for reasonable prices in the $200 range. They then have the ability to sell them for less than reasonable prices. Many tickets were sold for around $4000 for game six against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The highest rumoured price was that a ticket went for $9,000 on StubHub or Ticketmaster.
Many arenas in the United States with state case counts much worse than they are in Quebec are selling out to full capacity already, but Canada has been more cautious overall.
Expect pressure to increase for higher attendance should the Canadiens advance to the third round, and the case counts continue to drop while the vaccinations continue to rise. An exemption is also in the works to allow an American team to come into Canada for the third round of the playoffs mid-June and for travel to continue between the as the series progresses.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.