The Montreal Canadiens are a win away from competing for the Stanley Cup.
The Cinderella team of the NHL playoffs got goals from young stars and experienced veterans, and Carey Price did the rest in a 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night in front of a full crowd at T-Mobile Arena.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi got Montreal off to its patented early lead, Cole Caufield and Eric Staal padded it in the second and Nick Suzuki added an empty-netter as the Canadiens took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup semifinal.
Game 6 is Thursday night at Montreal’s Bell Centre.
While the Knights — who got a goal from Max Pacioretty in the third — face elimination, the Canadiens will have two chances to book a ticket to their first Cup final since 1993. The Canadiens have 24 Cups to their credit, 23 since the formation of the NHL, the most by far of any team.
But they are also the least likely of the 16 playoffs teams to make it this far. They were the lowest seed, the last to clinch a berth, and their record was only the 18th best of the league’s 31 clubs.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have a chance to become the first team to clinch a berth in the final. They hold a 3-2 series lead on the New York Islanders, with Game 6 Wednesday night in Long Island.
The Canadiens are now 7-0 when leading after the first period and 10-0 when scoring at least twice, a testament to their commitment to defence and the goaltending of Price.
- Long Knights: Speaking of goaltending, coach Pete DeBoer will have some explaining to do after he put Marc-André Fleury back in net over Robin Lehner. Lehner won Game 4, after Fleury’s late miscue cost the Knights in Game 3.
Fleury’s a battler, a three-time Cup champion and a fan favourite, but he hasn’t been able to stop Montreal’s snipers.
But Vegas’s plight is far from the goaltenders’ fault. Vegas’ top scorers had been largely blanked, until Pacioretty broke through in the third. The issue is the power play, which is shooting blanks, even with the Knights getting No. 1 centre Chandler Stephenson back from injury.
- Surprise, surprise: The Canadiens certainly know how to play the first periods they like, get that early lead and play that perfect — or is it boring? — shutdown road game.
The Knights took the play to Montreal in the early going and led in shots, but didn’t have a truly good scoring chance. But the Canadiens are patient, and their first shot was a high-grade scoring chance, a breakaway by Josh Anderson. Fleury stopped him, but lost the puck. Kotkaniemi followed up and had an empty net with Fleury well out of the crease. Their first two shots on net came eight minutes into the game, and they had a 1-0 lead.
The template is no secret; it’s been on full display all playoffs.
“We’ve been a pretty good road team the past few years,” acting head coach Luke Richardson said before the game. “I think it’s our style of play. It doesn’t change much. We’re a good defensive team, we’re on top (of the puck) in all three zones. We’re difficult to play against. If you can frustrate that home team that maybe wants to do well, or do something spectacular, we’re usually in the way of that. It’s frustrating and it usually bodes well for us.”
It’s not just a commitment to defence, but an ability to convert on the few chances they get.
“We have some explosive players,” said Richardson. “We’re fortunate to have (speed), because that’s how the game is played nowadays. It’s very fast, a transition game. We know they step up on us.
“Playing pucks behind them, getting into foot races is good for us. But we don’t cheat. We’re always in a good defensive structure, but we rely on that speed when the time is right.”
By the end of the second, Montreal was up 3-0 on goals by Caufield and Staal, with the T-Mobile Arena crowd booing the Knights’ feeble power play.
- Scouting report: Fleury starting over Lehner took away what could have been a great showdown between Lehner and Caufield. After stopping a Caufield breakaway in Game 4, Lehner revealed the scouting report suggested the young Canadiens forward only went five-hole or high glove. It was an unusual revelation that got Caufield talking.
“It’s good that he’s opening his mouth,” Caufield said of Lehner’s comments. “You know what he’s thinking now, so I’m going to go off that and create new things to do and new things to look at.”
Caufield’s second-period goal was a one-timer.
- Still coaching: It was the third game with Richardson behind the bench, Montreal head coach Dominique Ducharme still sidelined with COVID-19. He is symptom-free and Wednesday will mark two weeks after his second vaccination, but there is no word on whether his self-isolation will bend prior to the required 14 days.
“There’s no update on Dom’s return,” Richardson said before the game. “It’s frustrating for him. We all feel for him, and we try to keep in contact with him as much as we can. He’s a big part of our Zoom meetings and preparation for the games. We’re hoping for the best and the quickest solution, but that goes through NHL and government protocols. It’s out of your hands.”
Richardson said meetings with Ducharme start at 8 a.m. and continue through the day, even between periods.
“It’s just like he is when he’s here,” said Richardson. “He’s short and to the point — two or three points that are going to help our team get better in the next period — and that’s what we focus on.”
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