It was not the Game 3 one might have expected based on the first two games of the Montreal-Vegas series with the Golden Knights setting the (slow!) tempo of the game for the first two periods and controlling both the shots and the scoring chances.
But what one might have expected was the dominance of Carey Price, who kept the Habs in the game and gave them the chance to do the unexpected once again with a sudden-death win late in the first overtime period.
First is not always what we expect
The Golden Knights, the weakest first-period team in the 2021 playoffs so far, had clearly decided to take a page out of the Habs’ playbook and stepped on the accelerator pedal as soon as the puck was dropped after the national anthems. The pressure was neither massive nor sustained, but the game was clearly one-sided, and at the seven-minute mark, they held a seven-nothing edge in shots.
At that same mark, the tempo changed for the first time as Jesperi Kotkaniemi was called for hooking in the offensive zone. Not a blatant hook but risking a penalty in the offensive zone is rarely a good thing. Unless, of course, you have a penalty kill like the ones Montreal has.
The penalty kill did an exemplary job keeping the Vegas power play from getting set up and clearing the puck repeatedly. Until the dying seconds of the advantage, that is. At that point, Mark Stone managed to get the puck to Max Pacioretty at the corner of the net to the left of Carey Price. Price slid over, his pads in a perfect butterfly, and blocked any opportunity as Montreal’s former captain whacked at the loose puck. Price finally got his trapper on the puck and covered up.
Keegan Kolesar decided to take a run at Ben Chiarot less than a minute later and was called for interference, giving the Canadiens their first power play. It looked better than the one Vegas had but they, too, came up empty from the two minutes. The best scoring chance from the man advantage was a cross-ice pass from Nick Suzuki to Cole Caufield; the rookie had some net available but could not control the bouncing puck.
With 14 minutes gone in the period, the Montréal fans finally saw the Powerhorse they had been waiting for as Josh Anderson drove to the Vegas net with Kotkaniemi as his wingman. He got the pass off to the young Finn as he was falling down – with some assistance from the Vegas defence – and Kotkaniemi made no mistake putting the puck in the net. Unfortunately, by the time the puck crossed the line, Anderson had already slid into the goalpost and knocked the net off its moorings.
Seconds later, though, Nicolas Roy broke loose and past the Canadiens defence, getting a clear scoring chance, only to be foiled by Price.
A second Montreal penalty kill, this time for a marginal hooking call on Joel Armia, capped off the period, once again with exemplary work, particularly by Phillip Danault and Artturi Lehkonen.
If all that sounds pretty good for the Habs, a 17-3 edge in shots and an 8-1 edge in high-danger scoring chances make it clear that it was very much a Vegas Golden Knights first period. Carey Price, though, barred the gates once again, keeping his team very much in the game.
The light comes on twice
Vegas set the early tone with Brayden McNabb’s open-ice hit on Suzuki, knocking the compact centreman flying onto his back. No penalty was called on the play, so Shea Weber took a run at McNabb to make it clear that these kinds of hits would not be tolerated, taking a retaliatory penalty in the process.
The Knights got more of a look at Price this time, but mostly from the outside. And in the dying seconds of the penalty, it was Paul Byron and Armia getting their own chance, with Marc-Andre Fleury mishandling the pick, and Byron then passing it from the end boards to Armia. The big Finn couldn’t get the puck past Fleury, though.
Shortly afterward, things fell apart for the fourth line, though, as Corey Perry could not clear the puck, and then Eric Staal made a blind pass back to Petry from behind the net. Except it wasn’t Perry he reached with the pass, but Roy, who had escaped from Jeff Petry, made no mistake one-timing the puck into the top corner of the net to give Vegas the first goal of the game.
A back-breaker for the Habs? Hardly so, as on the next shift, Suzuki reached a hard-skating Caufield with a centre-ice pass. Caufield, not reputed to be a particularly good skater, put on a clinic and dashed away from the Vegas defenders. Fleury put his pads down, but the young sniper lifted the puck over his shoulder for his second goal of the series to put the Habs back on the level again.
The Canadiens were clearly energized, and while the shot clock didn’t show much difference, they had some good rushes including two more chances by Caufield. This time Fleury would not deal any good cards to Caufield, though, keeping his net clean.
McNabb was back to creating havoc, making both legal and illegal plays. A blatant cross-check freed up the puck in the Vegas zone and sent Alex Tuch on a breakaway. The Knights can think “if only …”, “if only …” – if only Price were not in net. But he was and made that save, too.
The red sweaters appeared to be much more noticeable to the referees, though, and Kotkaniemi got called for another penalty, this time for hooking Pacioretty behind the Habs’ goal. This was a World Cup-dive-worthy play by Pacioretty, though, as the ex-Hab trapped and held Kotkaniemi’s stick. With his back to the referee, of course, to hide what he was doing.
No matter, it was another solid penalty kill and was capped off by a superhero performance by Lehkonen. The hard-working winger won a board battle against two Knights defenders, the puck came loose, and then Lehkonen took a second win against those defenders.
Tomas Nosek was called for tripping with a dozen seconds left in the second, too late for the Habs to create any power play pressure.
The shot clock looked grimmer yet at the end of the second, with 30 shots credited to Vega and only eight to the Habs, but the scoring chances were much more even in the second period. 20 minutes remained, with the first two of those on a Montreal power play.
Three goals for a win?
The third period did not have an auspicious start, as the Habs struggled to exit their own zone while on the man advantage. They never did manage to set up an effective power play, and the poor start to the period got worse as the Knights broke out in an odd-man rush, and Pacioretty made a tidy pass to Alex Pietrangelo, who fired it in past a sliding Price.
This time it was the Canadiens that were energized, though. The team took a far more aggressive approach, generating rushes and at times sustained pressure in the Vegas end of the ice. The Knights still took shots on Price and generated scoring chances, but no more so than with the Habs’ cautious play in the previous period.
Still, nothing doing, as the Vegas defence and Fleury combined to stop everything the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge could throw at him.
Until, that is, it all fell apart. Price was ready to sprint to the bench for the extra attacker, when Fleury bobbled the puck on a simple play behind the net, letting it escape to the front of the net. Anderson was driving for the net, and arrived there at a very timely moment to tap the puck in for a tie game with just under two minutes left in regulation.
A final two frantic minutes of attack by both sides followed but that third goal was nowhere to be found and the two teams would enter the first sudden-death overtime of the series tied at two.
The fine point of overtime
The overtime appeared to be a completely different game than the first two periods. Both teams appeared to be intent on winning the game early, and it was far more free-wheeling offence than we had seen in the series until now.
Halfway through the first overtime, the shots were even at five apiece, with the scoring chances slightly in the Habs’ favour. However, Fleury and Price both were determined to keep their goals clean.
But just under 13 minutes into the overtime, it all changed. Kotkaniemi reached the puck, spotted a streaking Anderson and lobbed him a high pass. Anderson managed to stop the pass though not control it, but Paul Byron was trailing just behind him and picked up the puck, turning it into a two-man break.
Byron played it perfectly, attracting Fleury into defending against him, and then passing it to Anderson on his right. It was an easy tap-in for the Powerhorse, his second of the game, and this one for a fourth straight overtime win for this edition of the Canadiens, and a 2-1 series lead.
HabsWorld Habs Three Stars
First Star: Josh Anderson Can there be any question about this? The Powerhorse is back, and had a great scoring chance with Kotkaniemi first, took advantage of a Fleury mistake, and then scored the crucial goal on the Byron pass. He was everything Montreal fans had been expecting him to be, driving to the net, using his speed and his body to full effect.
Stats: 2 goals, +2, 4 shots, 13:38 TOI
Second Star: Carey Price Had it not been for Anderson’s headline-generating effort, Price would have been an obvious first star. He stopped 43 shots, including a dozen or so high-danger chances. Without Price, the Habs would have been out of the game in the first period and embarrassed in the second. He gave the team the opportunity to win – and the team scored the requisite three goals to do it. That’s teamwork.
Stats: 43 saves, 45 shots, .956 save %, 1.65 GAA, 72:53 TOI
Third Star: Cole Caufield The young sniper was at his best in this one, completing tic-tac-toe passes with Nick Suzuki and generating two high-danger scoring chances on a night when Habs were low on those. The opening goal kept the team in the game and the line with Toffoli and Suzuki was the most dangerous on the ice.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 2 shots, 17:02 TOI
Honourable Mention: Artturi Lehkonen The two-way winger continued his strong playoff performance with outstanding penalty kills while continuing his high-energy play on the line with Danault and Brendan Gallagher. No highlight-reel goals for Lehkonen, only a ferocious forechecking effort and selfless defence in the Habs’ zone.
Stats: -1, 2 shots, 4 hits, 20:00 TOI