A surprise in goal for game four for the Vegas Golden Knights. Robin Lehner was chosen to replace Marc-Andre Fleury. It was a bold decision by Head Coach Peter DeBoer, but was it also a smart one? Lehner with one playoff start this year and he was lit up. Montreal needed to shake him, but he and the Golden Knights persevered with a 2-1 overtime win.
Carey Price gets credit for making tremendous saves. Of course, he’s a goalie. However, Price has been absolutely vital in adding to the ability of his team to defend well. Firstly, it has been an absolute mess for the teams that the Canadiens have faced in this series to find a spot on a dump-in that Price is not handling perfectly to help his defenders to exit the zone.
Price is often the best outlet passer on the entire team. Vegas dumps it in. Price gets it behind the net. He assesses his options, and Montreal heads back up the ice as he finds either one of his two blue liners or a forward on the half wall.
There’s more and it has not gotten much attention. Montreal has been using mostly only four defenders this playoff. Between 25 and 30 minutes for Ben Chiarot, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson. That means fatigue. Fatigue means mistakes — both mental and physical.
Watch how Price slows down the game to allow his defenders to get rest. People always think of rest as one dimensional. The player had 25 minutes of ice and rested for 35 minutes. The player had 32 minutes and only rested for 28 minutes.
But what Price does is more canny than that. He can’t do anything about Weber playing 30 minutes, but he can impact if Weber plays those 30 minutes over two hours and 33 minutes, or two hours and 48 minutes.
Whenever he has a chance, Price will take a whistle to slow the game down. That allows for his defenders to have recovery time for their lung capacity and their lactic acid. He very rarely will choose to feed the puck to a defender when it is in his glove. He wants slow hockey.
Another thing slowing the game down does is take the frantic nature of the game away. The Golden Knights want to play fast-paced, dramatic, up-and-down-the-sheet hockey. The Canadiens want to play it like a basketball game that’s only half-court. Montreal wants a lot of cycling and no real transitional hockey. Price is controlling that too psychologically. He is keeping excitement down and heart rates, too. This allows for a calmer night overall.
You think Carey Price is just a goalie? He’s a quarterback out there as well. He’s a player in complete control of the moment. It’s remarkable to watch this experienced goalie become the third defender and the creator of pace.
If you are going to go far in the playoffs, you have players who you did not expect a lot from who are suddenly the best players on your team. You need everyone to perform and many to surprise. There are two players in particular who have made these playoffs their time to shine.
After almost two complete periods, the first goal got bigger and bigger. Paul Byron had already been outstanding all night in a defensive role. It’s remarkable to watch him gain two or three strides through the neutral zone on his check and basically just grind him to a stop with his speed. Byron has been outstanding on the defensive side.
On the offensive side, he’s been around for the biggest goals of the playoff run. In this one, he takes a pass from Nick Suzuki off his back skate to free him. The weight was perfect as now it’s on his stick for the breakaway. Byron calmly picks the top corner going bar down as if he is Cole Caufield. The Canadiens get the lead.
The other player among many who stands out and is not supposed to be adding this much is Corey Perry. The experience of playoffs past means a lot. Perry has fought the good fight and he has been ready to fight this one too. He knows what it takes. He’s telling the rest of his mates, and he’s leading by example.
Perry doesn’t have the wheels anymore, but he’s got the hands and the heart. Eight stitches from taking a stick in the face weren’t going to stop him the other night. They had to close his nose before he could get back out there. The doctors only got half the job done because when Perry heard the roar of Byron to Anderson for the OT winner, he had to get back out there to celebrate. Blood or no blood; stitches done or not done. That’s the commitment right now. It takes that commitment, and Byron has shown the way for everyone.
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I have resisted talking about the officials these playoffs, because just complaining about one call for one team or the other team again and again just leads to the pendulum swinging the other way another game and then feeling silly that you have sounded like a homer.
So it’s important to note that the following thoughts have nothing to do with one team or the other team. They have to do with the overall failure of the referees to police the game. With calling absolutely nothing and it becoming obvious that that was the case, the players themselves began to take liberties. They knew that nothing would be called.
The envelope got pushed farther and farther as time passed until by the end of the second period both teams were using their sticks like street weapons. One hack to the back was followed by one to the back of the legs. One punch to the face was stared at by Chris Lee like it wasn’t even in the rule book.
While the clock was winding down in the second period, the game continued in the Montreal end. Over 150 feet away in front of the Vegas goalie was another sport. It looked like World Wrestling Entertainment.
Hockey? What hockey?
Lee hadn’t looked at anything related to hockey for 15 seconds. All he saw were players breaking about ten rules. It looked like he was going to call a penalty when his arm moved once, but it turned out it was just that his sweater was uncomfortable. He was simply adjusting it for comfort.
It was interesting to note that Sportsnet, who are sellers of the game, had even had enough. When you lose Sportsnet, you’ve lost everyone. Craig Simpson called it ridiculous. Kevin Bieksa called the officiating “prison rules.”
Remarkably, after letting the game deteriorate so significantly, it was a little tug on the elbow that drew the game’s first penalty. This tug happens about 40 times a game. Why was that tug called?
They have to do better than this. They have to have a better idea how to run a game. Four players can’t be punching each other in the face for 20 seconds, while a different set of players are using their sticks as weapons for 20 seconds. They lost control of the game and it was embarrassing.
See a foul. Call a foul.
This should not be so difficult. You are the official; not on your couch at home. You are the one policing the action. Be active. Know the rule book. Call the rule book.
And after all of that, you know who the referees are following in their recipe for style and calls, made or not made? The instructions from the league are what they are following. This is the NHL that the NHL wants and they got it. Chris Lee is one of the only officials left because they actually like him. They choose this.
This Vegas-Montreal series has taken on unusual twists in the last 72 hours. Head Coach Dominique Ducharme learned he had Covid-19 on Friday morning and promptly had to leave the Canadiens bubble. We learned on Sunday when he spoke to the media that in Las Vegas he was only at the rink, the hotel, and the hotel’s gym, and he has no idea how he acquired the virus. Thankfully, he is feeling fine and believes that there is a good chance that he will not be gone 14 days as has been reported. Ducharme can be reinstated after multiple negative tests. He did not rule out that that could be back inside one week.
At 5 PM every night, the NHL Covid-19 protocol list comes out. Sunday’s list looked terrifying. The Canadiens did not have the all-clear at 5 PM like the other three teams playing in the semi-finals. Thankfully, Montreal’s TBA turned to all clear 10 minutes later. One scare averted for the league. All the players were safe.
However, only an hour passed and there was another positive case. This time in the entourage of the Vegas Golden Knights. Their General Manager Kelly McCrimmon tested positive for the virus. What didn’t help the optics for the league, the Golden Knights, and even Canada for making a 14-day quarantine exemption was that McCrimmon was seen all game on Friday not wearing a mask as is protocol in indoor venues in Canada.
McCrimmon was scolded by the league it was learned publicly for not wearing a mask. Three hours later, it became known that he had tested positive. He now needs to isolate in the same manner as Ducharme, but for McCrimmon, in a Montreal hotel room.
All we can be thankful for here is that this has not transferred on to the players. It is more likely, though unlikely overall, that there is a problem with the Canadiens, as they are more inclined to be in close contact with their head coach. It is rare that a GM is in contact with his players in any substantial way, but it must be considered that McCrimmon took the same plane as his team.
This has been a long road. The season has been difficult. The adversity that the Canadiens suffered having to play regularly five games in eight nights to complete the season should not be thought of lightly. The Canadiens organization survived it injured and exhausted, but well enough to make the playoffs. Once rested, they found their better selves.
Now a second bout with the virus for the Montreal organization, and another difficult moment for the league.
The finish line is so close. Both sides want to conclude it fairly without any Covid-19 gifts of lost players, or even team forfeits. That would always taint the achievement. That means hope only for all that this is the last of it for Vegas and for Montreal.
Testing continues Monday morning. Results at 5 p.m.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.