Now there are four. Remarkably, despite being the longest odd choice and predicted by no one to make it this far, the Montreal Canadiens are one of the four teams that remain vying for the Stanley Cup.
Now comes the toughest test, they say — but they already said that twice. A packed house watched game one against the Vegas Golden Knights and the home team survived a shaky first period to post a convincing 4-1 win.
During the first 10 minutes of the first game of a series, you are looking for patterns. The pattern that the Golden Knights wanted was up and down the ice with fast-paced hockey. They wanted it to be just like how they took out Colorado. Speed and transition made up their mantra.
The pattern that the Canadiens wanted was cycle, cycle, cycle on offence. On defence, the pattern they wanted was a slow Vegas attack followed by a series of box-outs, keeping the men in black on the perimeter. Montreal wanted the neutral zone to be like basketball’s half-court offence.
The patterns for the Canadiens were perfect. On offence, the Cycle Line was strong early. Corey Perry and Eric Staal put together the perfect shift as they endlessly cycled. Joel Armia helped as well as this fourth line has been the surprise in the playoffs that has helped propel Montreal to this point.
On defence, the Golden Knights faced very little pressure and when they approached on the attack, Alexander Romanov absolutely crushed Alex Pietrangelo with a perfect hit. The hit made a statement: the Canadiens are not backing down.
On the attack, again, the hard drive to the net by Josh Anderson said the Canadiens were going with force. So it was not an appropriate result when the Canadiens trailed for the first time in seven games on a Shea Theodore slap shot that screened Carey Price.
That is hockey. It was 1-0 Vegas, but the first period made one point clear; the Canadiens can compete with the Golden Knights, just like they competed in the first two rounds with Toronto and Winnipeg.
The first period was domination from the Canadiens, leading Expected Goals 1.82 to 0.31. You don’t get better than that in hockey. However, it doesn’t matter how much you dominate if you can’t keep the save percentage and the shooting percentage in line as well. If the Canadiens can keep the PDO in line and consistently combine it with that type of territorial Expected Goals advantage, then Montreal is in good shape to be the eventual series winner.
However, we do know the Achilles heel for the Canadiens is to territorially dominate, yet be unable to finish. They simply need to avoid that scenario as this series moves on. They must keep getting strong goaltending, and find a way to finish against Marc Andre Fleury.
The second period came with a moment to treasure for the Caufield family, who were able to get from Wisconsin to see their boy play because they didn’t have to worry about the border closure into Canada. It was the good luck charm that Cole Caufield needed as he scored his first playoff goal.
It was a powerplay marker as Caufield took the rebound and found a wide-open net to make it 2-1. His parents, Paul and Kelly, hugged with pride. Cole’s brother Brock, with whom Cole played for the University of Wisconsin–Madison Badgers, was also there for the contest in Vegas. It was a beautiful moment and the only true one for the Habs faithful to enjoy.
While the first period had so many good things for the Canadiens, none of that was around for the second. Vegas started to take over and seemed to have better speed, which was the expectation from most of the analysts who were steadfast that Montreal did not belong.
For the second period, the experts were right. It was a complete turnaround from the first. Fleury had to have been bored — there was so little around his net after the Canadiens’ terrific start. Erik Gustafsson with the struggle on the first goal. Everyone with the struggle on the second goal, as both Shea Theodore and Alex Martinez were alone. Brett Kulak with the struggle on the third goal not tying up his man.
Judging by the night, when Jeff Petry is ready to come back, it will be Kulak or Gustafsson who leaves because Romanov was strong and he was used a lot, which indicates that the coaching staff agrees.
The contrast between when Montreal controlled the tenor of the game and when Vegas controlled it could not have been more stark. The Canadiens were the weaknesses that they have been accused of. Only Carey Price was sensational. Price made a save for the ages against Mark Stone, who looked skyward not believing his shot labelled for the top corner was snared by the Price glove.
In the third period, Vegas kept the game dull when it was the way it needed to be for them. They added a fourth goal on another pinch from the defenders as Nick Holden scored. The big adjustment the Canadiens need to make for game two is to have eyes on that attacking defender coming down low like the Holden goal between the hash marks — like Theodore to Martinez as both defenders were down low to attack.
This is a club that engages its puck-moving defenders to show the value of that asset class to be a complete hockey team in 2021. The wave of the future is all players having the ability to do all things. The last change on that for many clubs is that the defenders can also play offence and do it as if they are forwards like Vegas did all game one. An activated and attacking defender has to be stopped. That’s the biggest challenge for Montreal and it won’t be easy as Vegas is extremely talented back there.
It’s interesting to see the recent headlines about getting more fans in the Bell Centre for games three and four. Premier Francois Legault is suggesting that he would love to have more fans in the building — as if he is not the Quebec premier who can make that decision.
He is right in theory. It is a bilateral decision and would be made with the health board in the province. It is also unlikely that they don’t take their cues from each other. Perhaps the health board has a veto vote in the matter. In the “good cop-bad cop” scenario, the health board is definitely playing the role of the bad cop.
From this perspective, all we can say is that it is unlikely that we have heard the last of it as we head toward Friday night. The COVID-19 case count continues to drop at an outstanding rate, with only 123 new cases reported in the last day — the lowest daily number since Sept. 1, 2020. For a population of 8.5 million people, 123 is outstanding. Well done, Quebec.
The Canadiens have formally asked for the ability to put more fans in the building. The fact that it is full in Las Vegas does make it difficult for Montreal fans to see that same home-ice advantage that the Knights can get from that rabid fan base compared to only 2,500 trying to equal that Vegas energy.
We shall see. This story has not had its final chapter written.