Still Talkin’ Habs: This is the team Carey Price has been waiting for
Published Wednesday, June 23, 2021 9:07AM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, June 23, 2021 5:12PM EDT
NEWS -- “They don’t hang conference banners from the rafters here.”
The Montreal Canadiens are 60 minutes away from writing their own unique piece of history in the annals of their storied franchise after their comprehensive 4-1 victory over the Las Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5.
Carey Price’s words from playoff failures of yesteryear kept coming to mind after the Habs played arguably their most complete postseason game this century, Tuesday night.
The goal has always been far more than just getting into the playoffs for the Canadiens goaltender.
The question has always been whether the organization could surround their superstar with the right pieces to turn his dreams into reality.
It took two failed conference final appearances, a reset, two coaching changes and an offseason for the ages from General Manager Marc Bergevin to get them to this exhilarating point.
This is the team that Price has been waiting for, for the past decade and they announced themselves to the world in emphatic fashion in Game 5.
Let's start with the standout player who is looking increasingly like the one that got away for the Golden Knights...
Nick Suzuki isn’t known for being overly demonstrative early in his NHL career. Even less so after an empty-net goal.
But the way that he stretched his arms aloft and sneered at the Vegas crowd after calmly depositing the puck into the home team’s empty cage gave us a glimpse into his mentality going up against the crew that drafted him and then traded him away.
The young man has revenge on his mind.
Suzuki put together a masterclass of a performance to bring the Habs within a win of the Stanley Cup final.
His two assists were examples of just how complete a player he already is at the tender age of 21.
He showed off his superior sense of time and space before finding a wide-open Eric Staal in the slot for his goal.
Defensively, his backcheck play on Selke finalist Mark Stone sprung Corey Perry on the odd-man rush that would become Cole Caufield’s goal.
Staal called him “ultra-competitive” postgame while interim head coach Luke Richardson described him as “sneaky, strong and physical.”
Add to that his playmaking ability and natural offensive instincts and you not only have the Habs' first-line center for the next decade, but also the best centreman not named Brayden Point still left in these playoffs.
Earlier, fellow youngsters Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield found themselves amongst the goals, with the Finn, in particular, looking the best he has this series.
While looking more relaxed with the puck on his stick, it was his defensive commitment that stood out, perhaps trying to atone for being beaten in front of the net by Nicholas Roy for the OT winner in Game 4.
Caufield put his money where his mouth is after getting into a small verbal scuffle with Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner about his shooting tendencies earlier in the day.
As for the rest of the team? Flawless, honestly.
The confidence of the group was almost freaky Tuesday night.
Even after Max Pacioretty pulled Vegas within two with 15 minutes left in the game, there wasn’t really any doubt as to how the game was going to end.
The Habs forwards shut down the middle of the ice with their back pressure, the defencemen filtered the opponent to the outside and the puck didn’t spend more than a few seconds in their zone.
Each forward line played to their identity and each defensive pairing made the right play both with and without the puck.
Just last week, I said the Canadiens needed to play near-perfect to beat the Golden Knights. Last night was sublime perfection.
Now, the team Price never had has given him the opportunity he’s always wanted.
A series lead with a chance to play for Lord Stanley’s mug on the line.
For a guy who elevates his game in big moments, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll allow Vegas to beat him twice.
He might just get that chance to put a banner of his own up into the rafters of the Bell Centre.
If you’re over the age of 40, this level of play from the Habs feels like a long time coming.
If you’re under the age of 35, you have simply read and heard about the winning history of the Montreal Canadiens.
You’re finally living it now. Enjoy.
Carey Price – 8/10
Relatively untroubled for large portions of the game. Had to make a couple of slot saves on Pietrangelo, but didn’t have to do anything spectacular like we’ve seen so often these playoffs. Third-period saves in tight on Smith and Janmark stood out. Hard to imagine him allowing his team to lose twice over the next 72 hours.
Shea Weber – 8/10
Don’t think I’ve seen him handle the puck so cleanly on the power play. Was surprisingly aggressive jumping into the play on potential odd-man rushes. Led the team with four blocks. Really made handling Vegas in his own zone look incredibly easy. Took a great penalty on Stephenson as well after getting partially beaten off the rush. Led the way on the back end.
Ben Chiarot – 8/10
Led the team with seven hits, but it wasn’t necessarily anything bone-jarring that stood out. Put on a clinic in casually separating players from the puck. Stood out on the penalty kill once again. The way the game ended favoured him as he just kept things extremely simple and got the puck out. Never look flustered or under pressure doing so. Mature performance.
Jeff Petry – 8/10
Tuesday night was the first indication that the wrist/hand/fingers might really be improving. Made some very creative plays with the puck on his stick, including a toe drag for a dangerous shot and a shot pass for a tip by Toffoli that went just wide. Dealt with the rushing Golden Knights with ease. Didn’t appear to break a sweat. Composed on the power play. Played the game on cruise control.
Joel Edmundson – 8/10
What a mature performance. I’ll keep on saying it, he might be the best natural passer on the Habs blueline. One-touch passing, deft little tips off the boards to teammates to break out. Never seemed flustered with the puck on his stick. Also might have the best defensive stick on the team. His standard of play in the playoffs has been one of the biggest revelations of the season. Terrific on the PK.
Jon Merrill – 7/10
Probably his best game of the playoffs for the Canadiens. His skills are limited, no doubt. But his smart little backpass in his own end started the breakout that led to Kotkaniemi’s opener. Dealt with the speed of the game well and simply played within himself. He’s a valuable part of the best penalty kill of the postseason so far. Calm.
Erik Gustafsson – 6/10
Didn’t look nearly as relaxed as Merrill at even strength. But hardly put a foot wrong. Gained some confidence on the power play, which hasn’t been kind to him the last couple of games. Looked better handling the physicality of the Vegas forecheck. A mistake-free outing from him is all you’re expecting and he delivered that.
Nick Suzuki – 9/10
Easily the Canadiens' best player last night. His empty-netter was the exclamation point on a fantastic night of work. Those Bergeron qualities he has wanted to emulate are more striking with each passing game. Dogged in one-on-one battles to go along with natural offensive instincts. Created the space for himself to find Staal off the bench for his goal. Great defensive play on Stone to spring Perry for Caufield’s goal. He’s enjoying getting one over on the team that traded him away more than the guy who he was traded for. A professional performance from him.
Cole Caufield – 8/10
Give him half a chance and he’ll bury it. Striking to hear him talk about Lehner’s comments about him on a playoff gameday. Shows where his confidence is at right now. He’s had better games this series when it comes to impacting the game. But the timing of his goal was massive. Essentially killed the game off right there. He has three goals this series. Vegas forwards have four.
Tyler Toffoli – 8/10
Deserved a goal for his play in front of the net. Had two terrific tips in front somehow not go in. One well saved by Fleury, the other one just barely going wide. Continues to do the heavy lifting along the boards for his linemates. Picked up two assists to go along with his four shots on goal. Also tied for the team lead in hits amongst forwards with four. Played like a man who knows what it takes to win this time of year.
Phillip Danault – 8/10
The penalty kill maestro. Make that, defensive maestro. A pain in the behind all over the ice. Took the majority of the Habs draws Tuesday night and won 50 per cent of them, which is not too bad. His line seemed to enjoy more offensive zone time than they have of late. Counted upon heavily in closing time and answered the bell, like he most often does. Elite defensive stick positioning. He doesn’t put up enough offence but the offence he denies is worth its weight in gold.
Brendan Gallagher – 8/10
The real Brendan Gallagher stood up to be counted last night. Picked multiple fights with Vegas defencemen in front of Fleury. His puck control and decision-making were much improved compared to where it has been at times these playoffs. Often won or at least drew board battles against one or even two Vegas defencemen. Tied for the team lead in hits with four. Feels like he’s poised for a breakout offensively.
Artturi Lehkonen – 8/10
When his playing career is done, he should run a hockey school exclusively dedicated to turning over pucks on the forecheck. Specifically enjoyed success doing that at the opponents' blueline, cutting off their flow just before or in the neutral zone. He plays with maximum effort all over the ice. No shots on goal, but his defensive duties are where he shines. Probably the Canadiens best penalty killer.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 8/10
His most complete game of the playoffs to date. He was a man possessed defensively, constantly outworking Vegas players to recover or win loose pucks. Didn’t let his offensive creativity suffer either, which is something that happens to him at times. Great defensive zone breakout and follow-up on Anderson’s drive to open up the scoring. Best faceoff guy last night. Would still like to see him shoot more, but did his job with elite-level effort.
Josh Anderson – 7/10
I hear the Jaws music in my head every time he gets in on the forecheck. Da-dum. Da-dum. Followed up his 10-hit performance with only two last night. His biggest contribution was his drive on the backhand to create the rebound for Kotkaniemi to put home. That line looked as cohesive as they have so far in the playoffs. Enjoyed some decent control in the offensive zone as well which is something he’s struggled with at times. Didn’t jump off the page, but still did his job well.
Paul Byron – 7/10
Great pass to spring Anderson in the build-up to Kotkaniemi’s goal. Used his speed to harass Vegas forwards on the backcheck. He did the best job of any of the Canadiens forwards of being aggressive with Golden Knights defenceman at the blueline and cutting off shooting and passing lanes. He’s such a gamer. Feels like he and his linemates are finally starting to gain some chemistry.
Eric Staal – 7/10
Talk about going for a rip there, bud. What a perfect shot glove side on Fleury to give the Habs their crucial two-goal advantage. Tell me if you’ve heard this before: used his body so well to maintain control of the puck down low in the offensive zone. Skating has looked much better of late as well. Only 36 per cent on faceoffs isn’t ideal. But just did the little things like chip the puck either out of his zone or deep in the opponent’s zone. Can’t believe how important he’s been in the playoffs compared to the regular season.
Joel Armia – 7/10
Although he wasn’t as obviously dominant as he has been at times before, his board work and battle level stood out. Stick-lifting machine. Repeatedly came out of a scrum of several with the puck on his stick. He and his linemates just dominate the opposition shift after shift even though it appears to be happening in slow motion. Important cog in the penalty-killing machine.
Corey Perry – 7/10
See Staal, Eric and Armia, Joel for facts about his work deep in the offensive zone. What a play for Caufield to not only draw the defender towards him on the rush, but to use his long reach and ridiculous hands to put it right in his wheelhouse on the backhand. Controlled the puck well when on the power play. He, in particular, will be leaned on quite heavily in a leadership role in Game 6.
Luke Richardson – 8/10
It was men against boys out there. All four of his lines were rolling, simply fed them the ice time. His team owned the middle of the ice both when it came to forwards and defencemen. The effort was so impressive in all three zones. As much as you have to feel bad for Ducharme not being out there, what an opportunity for him. The performance seemed almost too easy. Won the special teams battle. Extremely impressive.