It was a critical game for the Vegas Golden Knights, a must-win to keep the series from getting out of hand. Meanwhile, many in the media were worried that the Canadiens would come out as flat as they did in Game 3.
As it turned out, the Habs were anything but flat, but unfortunately, that was not enough for them to secure a victory and a commanding series lead, and they will return to Sin City with the series tied up at two.
In and Out
After two consecutive Habs victories, the big news ahead of Game 4 was Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer’s decision to drop his go-to goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, in favour of Robin Lehner. Lehner had tag-teamed with Fleury much of the regular season, but had only played a single playoff game: after he was lit up by Colorado with a 7-1 score, the job had been Fleury’s.
Brilliant strategy to turn the series in the Golden Knights’ favour, or a rash decision after Fleury’s puck-mishandling incident that would give the Canadiens a stranglehold? That would take the next 60 minutes (and maybe some more) to determine.
Dominique Ducharme was still in isolation, so Luke Richardson ran the bench once again, presumably with pre-game guidance from Ducharme.
This One Was Different
It was a much stronger start for the Habs than the one seen in Game 3. From the opening faceoff, Nick Suzuki, Tyler Toffoli, and Cole Caufield pressed into the Vegas end. A few minutes later, Corey Perry made a nifty pass to Joel Armia along the boards and Armia returned it to Perry for a nice scoring chance. Artturi Lehkonen then fed Brandon Gallagher with a tidy pass to enable a break and another chance at Lehner. All of this in the first four minutes of the game.
Perry, Eric Staal, and Armia were again dangerous early, generating the bulk of Montreal’s opportunities and three high-danger scoring chances. The closest they got was at the seven-and-a-half-minute mark. Perry stole the puck at the Vegas blue line and was brought down – naturally, no penalty was called – but the sprawling Perry was still able to get the puck to Staal for a shot.
Staal’s rebound popped out to Armia, who found some empty net, but Lehner got his glove on it. It took a video review to confirm that the puck had not crossed the line, though, as an early Montreal lead was a question of just millimetres.
The Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge continued the strong play for the remainder of the period and finished it with an 11-4 edge in shots and a 5-0 edge in high-danger scoring chances. Three of those five were by Perry, Staal and Armia, and the other two by Suzuki, Toffoli and Caufield.
The First Would Be in the Second
The most spectacular chance of the first half of the period saw Alec Martinez dive for, and miss, a puck at the Montreal blue line at the end of a period of Vegas pressure. Gallagher had his eyes on the puck, though, and sprinted for it as soon as he saw Martinez diving. He stole the puck, carried it to the Vegas zone, and passed to Phillip Danault whose close-up chance was foiled by Lehner.
Both Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi had breaks in the first half of the period, too, but not enough time between the Knights defence and the hulking Lehner to create an effective scoring chance.
In the second half, Perry, Armia, and Staal had another shift of excellence with both a scoring chance and another roughing-up of Perry. The Suzuki-led trio followed up with its own pressure but Lehner mopped up any chances allowed by the defence.
With some five minutes left in the period, Tomas Nosek cross-checked Shea Weber repeatedly, with no call by the officials. Eventually, Weber took law into his own hands and cross-checked Nosek down. The referees finally called both players for unsportsmanlike conduct after they started to tangle.
These, the first penalties of the game, resulted in a 4-on-4 session, which was only notable for the hooking penalty to Suzuki for getting his stick on Alex Tuch. Vegas had a chance for 30 seconds of 4-on-3 power play but instead pulled Lehner to get 30 extra seconds of 5-on-4 time.
The Canadiens completed a 26th consecutive successful penalty kill, highlighted by a ferocious series of puck battles by Lehkonen to clear the zone.
As Suzuki rejoined the play, he seized the puck in the defensive zone and fed it to the fast-skating Paul Byron, who picked up the pass at the offensive blue line with his skates. Byron got the puck to his stick, waited patiently and then lifted it over Lehner’s shoulder into the top-left corner of the net. 1-0 for the Habs thanks also to another superb penalty kill effort.
With 21 seconds left, Martinez was called for interference on Anderson after pushing the Powerhorse down in the Vegas zone. Nothing doing in those 21 seconds but the Habs would start the third on a power play.
Shots were closer at 8-5 for the period, but high-danger chances were all Montreal again, at 4-0.
Third Is Not the End
The pressure was on the Knights to start the third, then. They needed a goal, or really two goals, to stay in the series.
The period-opening power play was effectively meaningless, with the Canadiens not managing to set up an effective formation or to even get a meaningful shot on goal.
Vegas at first seemed energized by the successful penalty kill, but the Canadiens rediscovered their speed and were successfully countering the Vegas attacks. Halfway into the third frame, the Knights had yet to record a high-danger scoring chance in the game.
However, just thirty seconds after the midway point, Suzuki broke up a Knights’ attack in the Montreal zone but could not clear the puck. As the teams battled for the puck in the corner to the right of Price, the Habs’ players clustered around the battle. But when William Karlsson pried it loose, he spotted Brayden McNabb on the other side of the net – not covered by any of the Habs. McNabb aimed for the short side, and the puck squeezed in between Price’s arm and body to tie up the game.
Caufield had a breakaway opportunity two minutes later, slipping away from Shea Theodore near the boards for a breakaway. The rookie sniper tried for a five-hole goal, but Lehner had his stick down and repelled the shot.
The final ten minutes saw repeated attacks by both teams, although arguably Montreal had the edge. Overall, the shots were 7-3 for the Canadiens and high-danger chances 6-0.
… and It’s Over
It was over nearly before it started, with Vegas scoring on their first high-danger chance of the game.
Vegas applied the pressure early and in the second shift of overtime it paid off. The Canadiens were scrambling to clear the puck, with Ben Chiarot and Kotkaniemi chasing the same Knight at first.
As Vegas got close to Price, something they had had trouble doing all night, things fell apart. Price lost his balance making a first save on Max Pacioretty, and then a second on Nicolas Roy. As Roy got his stick on the rebound, Kotkaniemi slid into the net trying to block the shot, but the Vegas forward had little trouble lifting the puck over the Finn to score the 2-1 goal and seal the Vegas victory.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star: Paul Byron – For a while, it looked like his goal after the power play was going to hold up but it was a key goal nonetheless. His speed has been a factor throughout the series and he has had a knack for some timely goals so far.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 shot, 17:28 TOI
2nd Star: Josh Anderson – Clearly, his two-goal effort in Game 3 gave him a confidence boost as he was noticeable throughout the game. He showed some offensive creativity off the rush instead of just rushing the net and he was hitting any Vegas player that was in his path.
Stats: 0 points, -1 rating, 2 shots, 10 hits, 14:08 TOI
3rd Star: Brendan Gallagher – There was more of an edge to his play in this one compared to some of his recent games. He was much more involved in the offensive zone than usual and with his linemates being quiet in Vegas’ end, it stood out. Performances like this should result in a goal at some point soon.
Stats: 0 points, 5 shots, 15:00 TOI
Honourable Mention: The Defence – From a defensive standpoint, this was Montreal’s best game of the series. Vegas was largely kept to the outside and only managed 19 shots on goal. Even more impressive is that they only allowed one high-danger chance all game. Unfortunately, it went in but it was still a strong showing from the back end overall.