The Montreal Canadiens are in a third-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights that is much like the first series with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many tight games and games going to overtime — back and forth they go — between two evenly-matched teams.
Game number five in Las Vegas was vital, and it was the Canadiens who won it 4-1 to take a 3-2 series lead.
After five goals in the regular season, Jesperi Kotkaniemi has five goals in the post-season. That is tied for the team lead. Some players get you to the playoffs and some players get you through the playoffs.
In the first period, Josh Anderson had a breakaway. Marc-Andre Fleury made the save, but was completely out of position for a rebound. Kotkaniemi followed it up with pace like you should to score yet again.
The next great chance that the Canadiens had was five minutes into the second period when it was Kotkaniemi with a beautiful pass to free Paul Byron all alone. He tried to go five hole and Fleury shut him down.
It’s remarkable how this kid turns it on in the post-season. During the regular season, you hear things like he’s a bust, but the playoffs come and he’s now got nine goals at the age of 20. That’s the same number as Sidney Crosby got before he turned 21 years of age in the playoffs.
Kotkaniemi is still so hard to project what point total he will top out at as a pro per season. It’s said 60 points is his ceiling. It’s also stressed, though, that he will be such a solid 200-foot centre that 60 points is absolutely fine.
Kotkaniemi’s profile is suddenly changing from what our expectations were on draft day. You saw a kid in his first year who has not grown into his body, falling down regularly, losing pretty much every puck battle he has, you think he better have some amazing point totals.
Three years later, Kotkaniemi is a puck winner, works hard, makes a ton of smart decisions and reads the ice and the play well. Suddenly the point totals don’t need to be so amazing, just be a good player. Just be a player who helps the team always. That’s Kotkaniemi.
Wait for him to be 25, though. All the things that he will learn by then — little tricks of the trade, more strength, and likely a better shot, too — are to come. This pick at three overall will look just fine having a centre, instead of a winger like the fans wanted in Filip Zadina.
Still, with the theme of ‘win the middle-win the game,’ it’s a showcase moment for what it means to have strength at centre. Look at what the Canadiens finally have at the centre position in this playoff run. It’s been two decades that they were dominated down the middle, but not now.
Kotkaniemi doing his thing at 20 and Nick Suzuki leading the way offensively at 21. Suzuki leading a rush in the second period and then winning a puck battle in the corner. He peeled away from his check to find Eric Staal who ripped it upstairs for the 2-0 tally. It was a three-point night for Suzuki.
That’s not all, as the centre dominance continues with Philip Danault. We all thought he did an amazing job against Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, but that was just the start of it. After Toronto, Danault has dominated the Winnipeg Jets and the Golden Knights. He is shutting down the best players that they throw at him. Five games in and the top two lines of the Golden Knights have a single goal to their name.
Add the old man Eric Staal, who is finding the fountain of youth in the playoffs that he was too tired to show in the regular season, and you have one to four in the depth chart — one of the key reasons that the Canadiens are faring so well in these playoffs.
There’s a moment in the second period when at the bench you see Corey Perry teaching Cole Caufield a manoeuvre that he is hoping that they can execute on a power play. Minutes later it happens. It looks just like Perry drew it up with his hands.
Perry had the partial breakaway, but he didn’t have the pace to take it home, so just like he drew it up, Caufield hangs back and goes wide. The pass was perfect. Caufield sent it into the far side as soon as it hit his stick. Fleury had no chance.
It was a perfect moment of watching the best of life playing out in a hockey arena. That passing on the torch is a wonderful theme in life and one that the Canadiens have embraced for over a century. To see it play out in real time in the NHL playoffs in the third round is special.
Caufield had four goals and one assist in 10 regular-season games. It seemed like that was more than anyone should hope for in the playoffs. The post-season, it was expected, would be too much for the kid to lift his game that much to make a difference.
Certainly the coaching staff was uncertain. He didn’t even play the first couple of games as they went with a more veteran laden line-up.
When he finally got in, he showed he wasn’t going to leave again. Caufield with massive goals and massive assists. He set up Tyler Toffoli in overtime to eliminate the Winnipeg Jets. With his one timer for a power play tally in the second period, he had three goals and five assists for eight points in 14 games.
It’s a remarkable achievement: To step in to the line-up, to go from Wisconsin college hockey straight into the most competitive hockey in the entire world, the NHL playoffs, and to shine like this.
While Caufield is doing all this good offensively, he doesn’t get to achieve anything if he isn’t so reliable defensively that he can keep getting a regular shift. Caufield takes care of his own zone well. He costs the team nothing in his own zone. He never overstays a shift which is very disciplined for a young player. He’s a remarkably strong 200-foot player for someone just getting his NHL legs.
The Canadiens future with all these kids performing looks so good at the moment. If the big three, Kotkaniemi, Suzuki, and Caufield can continue to lift their games even higher than this, Montreal doing well won’t be the outlier, it will be the norm.
The Golden Knights had 15 shots after two periods. This was not what they had in mind when they were scoring at will against the Colorado Avalanche. That was a wide open series with easy offence. Up and down the sheet they went, and it would seem that Vegas thought the third round would be the same style of series.
Not so fast.
Mark Stone was supposed to be the best player in the series. He is a minus and does not have a goal. Max Pacioretty was supposed to be the second best player in the series. He is also a minus and has one goal. The Golden Knights forwards are having difficulty getting anything going.
The defencemen on Vegas are outstanding at joining the play and making a difference, but you are going to need your forwards to contribute to win a series.
They will have to solve Carey Price, the consensus number one goalie in the world according to fellow NHL players, Price had only a .901 save percentage in the regular season. He has upped that to .931 which is near tops in the league.
Price wasn’t needed in game five, though, as much as he has had to be a hero in the past. We shall see what game six brings. The Vegas forwards have to solve Price more, but first they’ll have to get through the big bodied Montreal defenders to improve their quality of shot.
It seems as if the Canadiens have pushed through their COVID-19 scare. Dominique Ducharme first tested positive five days ago, and so far, there has been no follow-up case of any kind by any other player or coach in the organization. The incubation period of the virus is as long as 14 days, but usually a positive test comes three to five days after contact.
If Ducharme had infected others, it is almost certain that we would know of it by now. On Tuesday at 5 p.m., there were no additional players added to the COVID protocol list according to the National Hockey League.
This is terrific news. Can you imagine the Canadiens make it all the way to the final four and have to forfeit because of an outbreak on the team? That would have been crushing.
Ducharme remains in isolation at his home in Montreal and cannot join the team, it is said, for 14 days. However, Ducharme himself said that he could return sooner. The players have returned after negative tests for COVID sooner than two weeks. One should assume it is the same for the coaching staff.
Once Ducharme has defeated COVID — which is the high expectation, considering he is vaccinated fully — then he can rejoin the team. That could be sooner than 14 days.
One should also expect that no player will become a victim of COVID at this point, as June 23 is two weeks since the second vaccine dose for the Canadiens. Two weeks is the time it takes for the second dose to take its full effect. Any case now would be known as a breakthrough case, which is rare.
Now all they have to do is eliminate the Golden Knights so they have another two weeks of healthy hockey.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.