The goal in a best-of-seven series is to split the first two games on the road. While there was disappointment in Montreal over a 4-1 game one defeat, that could all be erased with a game two victory.
The Canadiens delivered with a 3-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights to even the series.
When they spoke of Cole Caufield and why he dipped all the way to 15 in the NHL draft, they said too small. They said he’d get hit and stomped and destroyed by bigger and faster players in the show. That has yet to happen.
In fact, if you are playing the most important games of the season and averaging a half a point-per-game, you are doing more than anyone could have hoped for.
The last of the regular season stretch is the most difficult with the highest intensity. Caufield scored four goals and an assist in 10 games. The intensity is lifted about five notches in the playoffs and Caufield has a goal and five assists in 11 games.
It is so easy to get completely lost in your first games in the NHL. You simply are not ready for how much more talented everyone is in the NHL. Caufield is showing that his first full season will be a build on what he is doing as the Canadiens roll into the third round of the playoffs.
Caufield is dangling. It’s been a while since Montreal has had such a fantastic dangler. He is small, but he backs off defenders like a giant, because they don’t want to get embarrassed by his feints and speed.
Tens of thousands of hockey fans said Caufield would get smoked at every turn. It’s 21 games now, and he hasn’t been hit even one time. His on-ice awareness is too good for it to happen regularly.
Another surprise for those that had not seen him play much at Wisconsin is how efficient he is on the defensive side of the puck. They’re also surprised how effective he is as a passer. Caufield knows what the right play is at all times. His hockey sense is second to none. He knows when the more effective is a pass.
What a treat it is going to be to watch Cole Caufield through the next decade. He’s 20 and only getting started, but he looks like he’s a veteran.
The Canadiens’ fourth line continues to roll; it’s the shock of the playoffs. They have been the team’s best line, making Marc Bergevin look like a genius. All three players were acquired by Bergevin. Joel Armia went for a song as the Winnipeg Jets were up against the salary cap and had to dump him. Corey Perry couldn’t find a job until Bergevin brought him on board for some insurance in a condensed season. Eric Staal was languishing badly in Buffalo where he was taken out of his misery for this Montreal playoff run.
All three are cycling so effectively that their point totals are among the best on the team. If you go far in the playoffs, there is always some kind of unexpected event. It’s often something that absolutely no one in their right minds would predict. This is the Habs’ John Druce moment. It’s their Jordan Binnington.
The Habs got on the board when the Vegas Golden Knights could not handle the hands of Perry, the size of Staal and the finish of Joel Armia. Armia has eight points. Perry has eight points. Staal has seven points. If you predicted that before the playoffs began, you are surely winning your hockey pool.
Outstanding work from Carey Price again as he continues to be sensational in the playoffs. It’s the third round, and Price is still around unlike when Chris Kreider took him and the Habs right out of the playoffs. He’s close to the top of the save percentage rankings in the post-season. He is a difference maker. Good for him.
Players have been saying for years, when polled, that they think he is the hardest goalie to score on in the league. Wonderful that he gets to prove it on the biggest stage late in the post-season.
It is not a regular occurrence to read at Call of the Wilde complaints about officiating. You head down that road and it feels that is all you are talking about over time. It also means you look like a ridiculous homer, but we’re gonna go there now. Not because they make bad calls, that’s common. It’s a hard game to officiate well.
This is not about missed calls. This is about decisions by officials to manage the scoreboard. It’s not that they miss it, or don’t see it. It is that they don’t want to take the excitement out of the game. It’s that they want to create excitement in the game.
Case in point, it’s 3-1 for Montreal midway through the third period. If they call a penalty on Vegas, it could take the excitement out of the game. Tyler Toffoli takes a high stick right in front of the ref, and nothing is called.
Last two minutes of the contest, it happens again. Joel Edmundson is hit from behind into the boards where his face is again crushed by a cross-check. It’s 3-2, and the referees are managing the scoreboard again, so nothing called on that dangerous play.
You can’t say that they don’t do it. A referee this year was even fired for managing the game. Tim Peel was caught on a hot mic saying that he gave a penalty to Nashville because it was their turn.
Montreal fans will argue in game two that it is a real problem. However, would Gary Bettman call it a real problem watching the fans excited right until the final seconds of the game because it was still in doubt? Would Bettman call it a problem knowing fans watching on TV stayed until the end because the scoreboard was managed so well?
Montreal got zero power plays in this one. Such is the punishment for taking the lead in a league that manages the scoreboard.
The Canadiens are still on the hunt for a third pair that they can rely on. They clearly only have confidence in Ben Chiarot with Shea Weber and Jeff Petry with Joel Edmundson. The third pair of blue liners continue to have their challenges. Brett Kulak plays some good games, then others he deserves to sit. Alexander Romanov looks like he can handle the intense pressure of the playoffs, then it looks too fast for him. Erik Gustafsson adds to the offence one game, then hurts the defense the next game.
Then there is Jon Merrill, who, when healthy, seems to have the confidence of the coaching staff, despite struggling a lot when he plays. Merrill had a rough night as he could not keep up with the pace of the play. Many times, it was on his stick, and he simply could not get it off his stick in time, meaning the pressure that the Canadiens were absorbing continued.
I’m not sure what the solution is. The future looks good when about four high-quality prospects arrive in Jayden Struble, Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris and Mattias Norlinder, with the hope that a couple of them land to augment the blue line’s depth.
For now, though, it will be trying to nurse the five and the six on the depth chart blue line, whoever they are, hoping that they can continue, in limited minutes, to survive this. For now, it’s working.
The Canadiens are continually getting burned by face-offs heading back to the point for goals. Alex Pietrangelo with both of the markers off of draws. They have scored six goals in this series and five of them are from defensemen. They engage their D better than anyone in the NHL. It just happens to be the only way to beat a red-hot Carey Price as well. If he can’t see them with six bodies in front of him, he can’t save them. The first goal seemed to have eyes as it made its way through a maze of bodies.
The Golden Knights saw the first two series. They saw the only way to create offence against the Habs was to get the defenders into the offence. They also saw that if Price saw the shot, he was going to save the shot. They are well coached.
The pressure was on to increase the attendance for the Canadiens’ home games Friday and Sunday nights. Canadiens fans wanted to equal the home ice advantage that the raucous fans in Las Vegas provided for their team. That was never going to happen as a full house was never a possibility considering the caution still being exhibited in Canada.
However, perhaps a little more than the one thousand increase was in order considering it could have been done safely. The issue is if you are being generous to the Canadiens wishes, then you have to be equally generous to the rest of the venues that want more capacity. And that the Quebec government is simply not ready for.
Owner Geoff Molson should still be pleased though overall as no other place in Canada is so well advanced in its vaccination efforts to allow any fans at all at any games. Club De Foot Montreal remains in Orlando playing its home games. The Toronto Blue Jays are in Buffalo for their home contests. The concessions made to the NHL have already been significantly larger than anywhere else by federal and provincial governments.
Therefore, the challenge is made to the 3,500 in attendance for game three to be as loud as 21,000 would be, if a full house were permitted. 3500 is still a big number. Make your presence felt in this final four appearance. These appearances don’t come easy. 28 franchises are already watching from the sidelines. Enjoy the moment whatever number you are at the Bell Centre or on your couches.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.