The Montreal Canadiens keep fighting. They found the way and the will to somehow survive a four-minute high-sticking penalty to kill that and then score the winner in overtime.
Montreal took the win 3-2 over the Tampa Bay Lightning and they remain alive for the Stanley Cup.
It’s hard for a head coach to make changes late in the process, so when all of the events of the morning skate became known, the reactions were swift and strong.
Most were quite upset that Jesperi Kotkaniemi didn’t play, but Jake Evans had a strong game, and he is a responsible player. After allowing a half-dozen goals the game before, responsibility had to make a return to the lineup in some manner.
It doesn’t have to be a long-term insult and career-crusher for Kotkaniemi that he sat. It can simply be that the grind for a now 21-year-old was starting to get too much for him, and a night off wasn’t going to hurt. Evans provided that. Kotkaniemi will be fresh when he returns.
The big changes were on defence, though, and in this case, most thought these changes were a long time in coming.
Alexander Romanov finally got back in, and it seemed right away that his physical presence was missing in the previous contests against Tampa. The goal didn’t hurt either as he counted the 2-1 marker for the first goal of his playoff career. Overall, Romanov added mobility, better decision-making, a goal, but most of all, that physicality.
It’s interesting because one thinks of the Tampa Bay profile as heavily talented and simply that, but the Lightning are a big, robust and actually the most playoff-dirty of the four teams that the Canadiens met in this playoff run.
The Vegas Golden Knights were positively timid compared to the Lightning’s willingness to battle in this final series. Montreal did not equal that for the most part. You could see it in Shea Weber’s play in game four that the overall sentiment was that the Canadiens were not throwing the weight around enough.
The Canadiens were not responding enough as battlers in this series. They accepted too easily that they were not going to equal that anger. Romanov made the opponent think twice about what might be coming physically and that’s part of the hockey equation.
Add to that the fact that the old Weber returned, the Weber that forwards were petrified of when he was a younger man. He was a defender that, if he timed it and you got crunched into the boards, you were going to hurt for a long time. The Habs did not get nasty early enough in this series.
Brett Kulak’s entry provided a different but also important dynamic. Kulak made a lot of steady plays, and if he was replacing Jon Merrill, it’s unsure if anyone can realistically say that Merrill should have been playing over Kulak. Kulak made so many difficult plays, and seemed to handle the time and space superbly. It’s a difficult environment to play your first hockey in a month.
Those big lineup changes all paid dividends, but it seemed more than that it was about the willingness to battle that brought the Canadiens back into a game that they did not seem at all interested in during the first 10 minutes of the first period. There are many forms of competing in hockey, and for the first time in a long time, it felt here like the form of competing that said “I will not back down” made a massive difference.
The overtime has to be contemplated in terms of that willpower as well. They kill a four minute power play to be alive at all. That was a monster kill. It’s been a strength of these playoffs and it continued. Montreal was five for five on the kill on a lopsided night for the men in stripes.
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And then there was the winner. Josh Anderson when he puts his head down and uses the combination of skill, size, and speed is a handful, and in this case too much of a handful. It was a remarkable rush down the left side to earn the chance. Cole Caufield kept it alive with the first shot. Anderson would not give up on the rebound to poke it home.
That line, put together for the contest, is the perfect construction. It has an F1 first forechecker who wins the puck, a 200-foot centre who can pass the puck, and a sniper on the other side who can shoot the puck. The more of the big three skills of winning it, passing it, and shooting it that each player possesses the better. In this case, the centre can do all three skills, the left winger lacks the passing, and the right winger lacks the puck winning. Overall though, the line that scored the winner and was created for game four could be a great one for a long time to come.
The Canadiens are alive. They live to fight in Tampa Bay in game five in two nights’ time.
This area could be filled with many mistakes, if that were the emotion of the night. Jeff Petry made a terrible giveaway on the Tampa Bay tying goal. During the first 10 minutes of the game, the Canadiens did not even appear to be ready for the fight. Shea Weber took a four-minute high sticking penalty that looked like it was going to cost the series.
The Canadiens were a far cry from the team in game two that was outshooting the Lightning 16-2 in the second period. They were getting outshot 11-1.
However, the Canadiens just kept their season alive and moved to the fifth game of the finals. What an accomplishment for this club that keeps on fighting, so this area does not need to be filled with any force.
The ownership of the Canadiens appealed last week for Sante Quebec to allow the increase of attendance for the finals. They declined to accept the request and the attendance stayed at 3,500.
Here’s the rub, though. The request was for games three and four only. If the Canadiens are able to get this series back to Montreal for game six, the club can appeal to the health board again.
The statistics are very much in the hockey club’s favour as the situation in the province remains under control. When the situation was dire at Christmas, there were 3,500 cases per day. Regularly, these days there are only 50 cases per day. That’s a drop of 98 per cent in daily cases. Quebec has not just bent the curve, they have flattened it.
Vaccinations also continue at a torrid pace as 81 per cent of those aged 12 and over have a first dose in them for partial protection. Over 30 per cent have a double dose. It’s why the situation has improved so much.
The province is also fully at a green stage in the colour-coded system. Meanwhile, with cases much higher pretty much everywhere else in the entire world, you will often see full-capacity stadiums.
Geoff Molson is hoping for a little common sense of equating the fact that close to no COVID-19 is currently circulating in Quebec with a chance to get some fans to safely enjoy the best days of their hockey fan lives.
Mental health is important, too. If you can do this safely as is clear that you can, then let’s celebrate that safety with some well-attended hockey.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.