Still Talkin’ Habs: Near-perfect Canadiens edge past Vegas 3-2 to 1-1 series split
Published Thursday, June 17, 2021 7:14AM EDT Last Updated Thursday, June 17, 2021 8:51AM EDT
MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens got out to an early lead and was rewarded for protecting it, beating the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 to head back home with a well-deserved 1-1 series split.
Now all they have to do is make sure they somehow don’t take any more defensive zone faceoffs.
Two goals from clean lost draws by Nick Suzuki ended up behind Carey Price and were the only real mistakes by the visiting Habs.
Sure, there were some nervous moments as the Habs defended the lead.
But luckily, those were taken care of pre-game by Jeff Petry’s deal with the devil to not only get out there, but to ensure a win in Game 2.
How else do you explain Vegas defenseman Alec Martinez’s goalward bound point-blank shot inexplicably striking Price's right hip and ricocheting into mid-air in a trajectory that defied physics?
Or what possessed Marc-Andre Fleury to throw out a poke check on Paul Byron as he brought the puck to his backhand on a breakaway to make it 3-0?
Do we really believe that Golden Knights top centreman Chandler Stephenson was too injured to play? Or is it more likely he was tied to his bed with his head turning 360 degrees next to a concerned priest shouting, “the power of Christ compels you!”
“Scary,” was the way Price and Joel Edmundson described Petry’s new demonic look.
Scared is how Vegas should feel heading to Montreal for Game 3.
And it’s not because of those Terminator red eyes peering into their souls from the Habs blueline.
It’s because the 2021 Canadiens will not go gently into the night. They like the battle too much.
The Habs laid down a marker last night and generated a ton of confidence in hostile enemy territory, the likes of which they haven’t experienced so far these playoffs.
Never mind the fans in T-Mobile Arena.
The Golden Knights got their pound of flesh with their physical punishment of the Canadiens as they tried to claw their way back into the game.
But they were made to look sloppy and disjointed for long stretches by their opponent’s relentless efforts, particularly on the forecheck and a defence unit that probably played its best game of the entire playoffs.
No offence to Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson, who had some uneasy moments.
But we’re obviously talking about the fab four (apologies to the Beatles and Michigan fans out there) of Edmundson, Petry, Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber.
The captain, in particular, stood out with his best game of the postseason so far.
He barely put a foot wrong offensively and got his team over the line.
Edmundson may have caused the icing that led to the second Vegas goal, but it was one of the very few mistakes he and Petry made as they controlled the tempo of the game with their smart and sharp passing to get their team out of their zone and through neutral.
Near-perfection. That was what it was going to take to beat this desert behemoth of a team.
Near-perfection is what fans and the coaching staff received from their players last night.
Other than the two faceoff losses that ended up in the back of their net, where did the Habs go wrong?
A bad line change sent Max Pacioretty in all alone. But Petry’s voodoo took care of that by throwing the left post out there to deny him, so all good there.
If you can count on one hand the number of defensive zone breakdowns your team had in a game, chances are they are doing something right.
Add in a terrific, tone-setting opening period and desperation from your forwards to prevent anything going the other way and you have a recipe for success this time of year.
Which of the men in grey really stood out in Game 2?
Alex Pietrangelo, obviously.
Scoring two goals will do that.
Alex Tuch is a 6’4 battering ram, so he’s hard to miss. But Mark Stone was relatively quiet and Pacioretty did nothing after that breakaway chance.
No one would have been surprised if you’d said William Karlsson wasn’t playing before he boarded Edmundson in the dying moments of the game on a play that was deserving of a whistle after the Habs defenceman’s head hit the glass, but somehow it was not deserving of a penalty.
The Canadiens made Vegas’ best players look average and that’s all you can do on the road in the playoffs.
Interim head coach Dominique Ducharme has said numerous times that his group will chase perfection, knowing they can’t attain it.
So just below that will have to do.
Three more near-perfect games and the Habs will be in dreamland with Lord Stanley’s mug on the line.
Carey Price – 9/10
Another highlight reel, game-changing stop from him on Martinez that he almost certainly didn’t see. But that’s what happens when you’re one of the most positionally sound goalies of all time. Aggressive at the top of his crease to cut down the angle on odd-man rushes. First goal goes through a mess of humanity in front of him and the second through Petry's legs off a strange shot-blocking strategy by the Habs defenceman. Wasn’t as spectacular as Game 1, but made the saves he needed to make with everything on the line in the second half of Game 2.
Shea Weber – 9/10
Put in a captain’s performance last night. In the first, it was his aggressive pinching at both bluelines that stood out. On the rush, he made the right decision with the puck on his stick, something he’s struggled with this season. Had seven hits as he set the tone defensively in his own end. Made some Herculean blocks -- of the painful variety -- in his own end in crunch time and led the team in that category with six. Even rang a heater of Fleury’s shoulder. Tip of the cap to him.
Ben Chiarot – 8/10
It takes a heck of a lot of energy to dish out nine hits, that’s for sure. Didn’t think his passing and distribution were on par with Weber. But he went through the wars in front of his net with some intimidating Vegas forwards. Did his job well for the most part. Led the team in ice time again, something that has become a hallmark of this team in the playoffs. Led the team in ice-time on a penalty kill that continued to pitch a shutout of late. Battled hard.
Jeff Petry – 8/10
All Cheech and Chong jokes aside, what a gutsy game from a guy who is essentially playing with one hand. Saw him pull out of going into the boards early in the first to ensure it didn’t sustain contact. Never seemed to bother him the rest of the way. Denied by Fleury on a terrific short side chance in the opening period. A better hand probably roofs that one. But his passing didn’t seem to suffer at all despite the limitations. He didn’t miss a beat controlling the pace of play from the back. Great block on a rush chance by Marchessault. Secondary assist on Toffoli’s goal to top off an above-average night at the office.
Joel Edmundson – 8/10
Never gets the credit he deserves when it comes to his distribution. Yes, his wayward pass was the icing that led to Vegas’ second goal. But that might have been the most inaccurate thing he did all day. Continued to make those clever one-touch passes in his zone to just keep the puck moving up the ice. Picked up two secondary assists on the night for good measure. Box out master in front of his own net.
Jon Merrill – 6/10
Did well playing a simple role on the penalty kill and competed hard. But you could tell that the long layoff had affected his legs, which appeared to be gone by the third period. Like Edmundson, stood out moving bodies in front of Price. But it’s hard to understand playing Merrill not even at 90 per cent over an enthusiastic and hungry kid in Romanov. Curious decision, but it didn’t cost them. Stat line says two blocks.
Erik Gustafsson – 6/10
So that’s what he looks like when he doesn’t get a chance to build confidence on the power play. Somehow was plus two despite looking the most likely to turn the puck over on multiple occasions. Survived some sticky moments, but not sure how endearing those moments were to the coaching staff. He was okay, but looked far too unpredictable to earn any more of the coach’s trust. For one night at least.
Phillip Danault – 7/10
The Habs most used forward last night to no one’s surprise. Won 61 per cent of his faceoffs as the leader in that category for his team. No Stephenson made it an easier night at the office for him, but did his job regardless. Next to nothing offensively except for some longer stretches of control of cycling the puck in the Vegas zone. But stuck with it defensively and played almost the entire final five minutes of the third period holding on to that slender lead. Did enough.
Artturi Lehkonen – 8/10
He took his game to another level last night. It seemed like he took the goals from Vegas blueliners to heart as he challenged them at the blueline in his own end, making a few acrobatic blocks in the process. Led the forwards in blocked shots with three. Was all effort in each of his battles in all three zones and even kept Fleury honest with a hotshot from the top of the left circle. Part of the superb penalty kill.
Brendan Gallagher – 7/10
Didn’t think he was s noticeable as he was in Game 1. His line enjoyed creating turnovers in the first period, but after maintaining possession well couldn’t turn it into scoring chances. Had one memorable one-on-one tussle through the neutral zone that he couldn’t turn into a shot. Tied for second on the team in hits by forwards with five. Feisty and went to the front of the net, but scoring chances were few and far between. Put in a shift defensively.
Nick Suzuki – 7/10
Like Danault, wonder if he played the entire final five minutes of regulation. Tried a ridiculous, one-handed through the legs move off the rush in the dying moments that would have been jaw-dropping stuff had it worked. Talk about confidence. Led the forwards with six hits and was more than willing to get into a physical battle up and down the ice. Won more than 50 per cent of his faceoffs, but the two he lost clean wound up in the back of his net. His line was easily the Habs most offensively threatening last night and he looked like he was in the mood to make something happen.
Cole Caufield – 7/10
Not as impactful as in Game 1 where he might have been their most threatening forward. But made another outstanding pass to set up Toffoli in the slot for his one-timer goal. To have not only the shiftiness to pull that off, but to command the attention from two Vegas defenders worried about his shot and to then lay it off right into Toffoli’s wheelhouse, was a thing of beauty. After that, he still did a decent job getting in the way defensively, but couldn’t generate much more as evidenced by his lone shot on goal. But job done by him.
Tyler Toffoli – 8/10
Only two players in Habs history have had a longer point streak in the playoffs than his current eight. Their names are Robinson and Lafleur, which is just altogether insane. Fleury probably should have had his one-timed shot from in the slot, but it was all about the speed of the release rather than power. Had a great stick in the neutral zone on the penalty kill and annihilated Pietrangelo on the forecheck there. His biggest contribution, though, was his diving play to cut off a seam pass to Stone which would have likely tied things up. Hero.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 6/10
An up and down game from the young centreman, highlighted by his low amount of ice time amongst forwards. Thought he looked out of place and shaky during his first few shifts in the first period. Seemed to find his footing after throwing his weight around to feel good about himself. But he has to do more than have just a single hit with no shots on goal and no blocks on the scoresheet. His tip out of the zone ended up on the stick of Byron for his goal, so nabbed himself a primary assist last night. But hasn’t arrived yet this series and they’ll need him to if they hope to progress.
Josh Anderson – 7/10
Beat out some icing with his terrific speed, although they didn’t really amount to anything. Tried multiple times to drive to the net hard, but got clobbered into the side of the net the final time he tried to pull it off. Five hits are more like it from the big man and he was physical. But he has to do more than just one-and-done chances off the rush. He and Kotkaniemi have to get some zone time cycling the puck to create chances and it just hasn’t happened yet. Needs more looks at goal than the one he’s getting right now. Great stick lift at the blueline sent in Byron for his breakaway goal.
Paul Byron – 8/10
This guy used to miss on breakaways all the time before joining the Canadiens. What a terrific backhand finish on Fleury that probably would have beat him even if he didn’t go for that late attempt at a poke check. Stood out on the penalty kill where his speed is always a threat on the counter-attack and makes it easy to pressure opposing defencemen up high. At 5-on-5, his line couldn’t get much going in the offensive zone despite one or two half-decent rush chances. Still waiting for chemistry to be developed between those three.
Eric Staal – 6/10
He was some kind of fired up from the drop of the puck. Extremely engaged physically and did more of the puck possession things down low than we saw against the Jets. Won all of his draws and appeared to have a little bit more hitch in his giddy-up due to the anger with which he played last night. No shots on goal and no hits, but still looked involved in the game. His line ground hard on the cycle in the offensive zone.
Corey Perry – 7/10
The poop disturber-in-chief on the Montreal Canadiens. Did some great work along the boards in the build-up to the crucial first goal by Armia. Earned a secondary assist for his troubles. Seemed to be involved in every extra-curricular scrum on the ice and loved every minute of it. Had a couple slow motion drives to the net that didn’t lead to anything, but caused chaos in the Vegas zone. It was his turn to do the winking to Price after his terrific save on Martinez. Leader.
Joel Armia – 8/10
Making a serious case to get re-signed on a long-term deal by the Habs. Showed his strength multiple times on Martinez specifically, notably separating him from the puck in the build-up to his goal. Four hits and three shots on goal tell me he was implicated and it showed several times during the run of play. Surgical with his stick as he won the majority of his one-on-one battles, especially on the penalty kill where he continues to be massively important. A very noticeable evening from the gentle giant.
Dominique Ducharme – 8/10
We can complain until the cows come home about his decision to bench Romanov and Kulak in favour of Merrill and Gustafsson. In the end, a win is a win and the guys he picked to go out there got it done. Another perfect start was kindly rewarded this time with a 2-0 cushion. His team played extremely well for 40 minutes. Naturally sat back a bit in the third with a two-goal lead and invited a lot of pressure on themselves for the final 10 minutes. It is only natural, but the difference between the aggressive Habs and the passive Habs is jarring and not in a good way. Penalty kill continues to keep opponents off the scoreboard and shrunk his bench down accordingly in the third clutching to that one goal lead. Mission accomplished with their split on the road to start the series.