Only two times in the history of the NHL playoffs has a team won a first series with a sweep and lost the second series with a sweep. That’s what was in front of the Winnipeg Jets, if the Montreal Canadiens could continue their improbable run of victories.
Game four brought the chance for a sweep and the Habs did it, locking it up in overtime on a gorgeous feed from Caufield to Toffoli.
Montreal is in the conference finals.
The Canadiens’ power play was looking better than it had in years in this one. They were throwing it around with great skill and ease. Why? It has to do with manpower, the actual talent involved in the endeavour. Coaches can teach all they want all sorts of designs, but if the players cannot execute it, then it does not matter much.
In this one, they scored on their opening power play and then on the second attempt, the Canadiens had one minute and 40 seconds of constant pressure. There’s just more talent on it. Nick Suzuki is getting more and more comfortable. Tyler Toffoli is a sniper. Corey Perry creates a lot of traffic in front of the net.
Now to the new players doing so much. Cole Caufield is absolutely dynamic on the power play. He is extremely difficult to take off the puck as his panic metre seems set to zero. Erik Gustafsson, for all of his faults defensively, is an absolute quarterback on the power play.
Gustafsson is finding options so easily. He also scored the power play marker to get the Canadiens on the board. When you have a good power play, it isn’t just the extra man for two minutes that makes the difference. It’s all of the minutes, as your opponent has to change the way they approach the game knowing, if they push the envelop to take a penalty, they might pay dearly.
It’s fascinating to watch the player profile change for Jesperi Kotkaniemi. When he began in the NHL, he was a thin rail of a human being. He fell down all the time. He got pushed off the puck most of the time. He won next to zero puck battles. If he didn’t have open ice, he wasn’t doing anything.
Now, as Kotkaniemi grows into his body, he has become a player more inclined to get you through the playoffs than one getting you to the playoffs. The stick skills are still not quite there, but he is completely playing well to his strengths.
Kotkaniemi is now a player who gets his goals working hard in the dirty areas. His goals are tap-ins from four feet battling with two defenders and a goalie and getting it done. In those battles, he sure isn’t falling down. He’s actually the stronger player.
He is also becoming a player who finishes every check. Kotkaniemi isn’t enjoyable to play against anymore. You see Kotkaniemi coming and you know you are about to be smashed into the boards. It wears your opponent down.
The window of points remains at 60 per season; he hasn’t shown a higher number than that yet. Generally, this frightens fans who think that will not be enough and be a disappointment of a draft pick at number three.
Not in the least. If Kotkaniemi grabs 60 points as the Canadiens’ second line centre of the future, but also playing a 200 foot game and doling out hits and anger, that will be an outstanding pick for Trevor Timmins. Nick Suzuki can be the first line centre with Cole Caufield and a mystery left winger, and Kotkaniemi can play just behind him with a different skill set.
That will work for years to come.
Not a lot of credit has been given to this coaching staff for its ability to protect the third pair defenders. It’s not been a common practice to do what Dominique Ducharme has done to make life good for the third pair. Usually, you will see a third pair that is being protected with eight minutes playing together. Just hope for the best when the third pair is out as a third pair.
Ducharme is making sure that the third pair is never playing together. For example, as they tried to work Alexander Romanov in to the lineup softly without too much pressure, he was on with Shea Weber and Joel Edmundson. For Gustafsson, they had him with someone from the first two pairs always and also another forward when he was taking care of his quarterbacking duties on the power play. Romanov and Gustafsson were never out together.
It’s a brilliant way to ensure that the pressure isn’t on too much, and there is a high-profile player with a lot of confidence nearby to cover for any errors and create a sense of comfort that you wouldn’t otherwise see. You get the feeling this is going to become a more common way around the NHL to get the five and the six defenders on the depth chart on the ice, with less danger.
More than any other of the major sports, hockey has results that do not follow the run of play. The Canadiens dominated this contest more than any other in the playoffs, and for a long while it appeared it would not matter. The Expected Goals Percentage after two periods based on the run of play had the Canadiens with a 91 per cent chance of winning the contest. The shots were 25-11 after two periods for Montreal. It should have been all but done for the Jets. But on it went.
Logan Stanley suddenly turned into a sniper after having only one goal in the entire season. He got two goals on two shots in the second period, both high on Carey Price to tie it up. One time Stanley counted on the blocker side, and the surprising one, he scored on the glove side where Price was there to catch it, but somehow did not get his glove on it. It was 2-2. It should have been 5-1.
This is hockey. It rewards the better team in the contest most of the time, but not always, and it looked like it was a ‘not always’ night. Sometimes, even though analytics will tell you a lot about who is carrying the game, Expected Goals and Corsi won’t tell you who finished their chances. Winnipeg looked like they had some sort of karma on their side to be in it.
The third period was even more lopsided. With the Jets having their season on the line, with eight minutes left they were outshot 13-1. It was 38-11 at that point and the score was 2-2. That it was headed to overtime is why the game of hockey can be called the game of goalie.
In overtime, all of the ‘what if’ ended as the Canadiens completed the sweep of the Jets. Cole Caufield, with the sweetest dish you could imagine to Tyler Toffoli, who found the home on a one timer. Montreal 3. Winnipeg 2.
Two weeks ago, everyone was getting fired according to a frustrated fan base and media too. Now, the Canadiens are in the final four.
Once again, we are goat free at the Call of the Wilde.
The pressure will be on for Premier Francois Legault to increase the attendance for the third round of the playoffs in Montreal. It stands at 2,500 but cases were down again on Monday and vaccinations were up again by a big amount.
Montreal won’t be at home in game three for about eight to 10 days. Vegas and Colorado are tied at two games apiece. Tuesday night, they play game five. It must go six, which means Thursday. It is likely to go seven, so that is on Saturday. The winner of that series hosts games one and two.
The rest gives the Canadiens a chance to see if Jeff Petry can get healthy after apparently dislocating two of his fingers according to the Sick Podcast’s host Tony Marinaro. The rest could be a strong advantage, as Montreal will hope that the West Division goes the distance and they take each other into the walls and through it the max distance.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.