The Habs have made it to the Stanley Cup Final after an impressive series victory over Vegas. In honour of them winning in six games, here are six thoughts on the playoffs so far plus the final round that lies ahead.
I’ve been critical of Montreal’s penalty kill during the season since, frankly, it wasn’t very good. It was a big concern of mine heading into this series, even with Vegas scuffling on the man advantage heading in. It almost felt like a house of cards where if they finally allowed one, it could come apart quickly. To their credit, they made the Golden Knights’ power play look ineffective for long stretches.
This record-breaking run that they’re on right now is nothing short of phenomenal. They’ve killed 30 straight penalties in 13 games, spanning 56:17 while scoring three shorthanded goals. To put that in other words, they’ve played basically a whole game at 4-on-5 and just popped an empty-netter when the opposing coach pulled the goalie a little early. That’s unheard of; it was unthinkable a month ago.
I’ll be honest, I’m still a bit worried about the penalty kill, especially if it winds up being Tampa Bay who is lethal with the man advantage and scores a lot of cross-ice goals that is one of Carey Price’s weaknesses. But even if (when?) this run comes to an end, this has the potential to be a record that stands for a while.
No O From The D
While Montreal doesn’t have a lot of firepower from the back end beyond Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, they still managed a respectable 100 points during the 56-game regular season, good for a 1.79 point per game average. That’s not elite but it’s far from the back of the pack either.
Heading into the playoffs, it stood to reason that they’d need offence from their defence to move on. Yes, Shea Weber wasn’t 100% but Jeff Petry was at the time and surely they’d get something from the rest of their rearguards, right? Of course, that didn’t happen with the team being blanked through the first five games against Toronto before coming back to life a bit against Winnipeg.
Then there was the Vegas series where it went back the other way aside from four assists from Joel Edmundson. Beyond that, the only other point was Shea Weber’s power play goal in Game 6. That’s two out of three series where the Habs failed to average one point per game from the defence let alone the 1.79 average that they had during the regular season.
For the playoffs, Montreal has 19 points total from the back end, an average of 1.12 per game. With Weber still banged up and now Petry as well, it’s going to be hard to ask for much more but that would go a long way towards boosting an offence that is barely averaging 2.5 goals per contest in the playoffs.
Acting interim head coach (is there an official title yet?) Luke Richardson has made it clear that the coaching staff is quite please with what Erik Gustafsson is providing. He is supposed to be providing offence from the back end but with a goal and two assists, he isn’t really doing that. Sure, he has strong possession stats (best on the team, even) but in spite of that, he’s averaging 9:31 per game in the playoffs and that’s with seeing PP1 minutes.
It begs the question, if they’re happy with what he’s doing, why isn’t he playing more? If Gustafsson is doing what the coaching staff wants, shouldn’t they be rewarding him with more ice time? I’m not saying play him 20 minutes a game but how about 12? Their top four is going to get the lion’s share of the minutes but given his limited offensive production, power play opportunities that are few and far between, and defensive zone limitations, are they better off playing someone they can actually trust to take a shift in the second half of a game?
I know Brett Kulak looked completely overwhelmed in his lone appearance against Vegas but he had a decent season and could play that type of ice time. So too could Alexander Romanov. You’re not getting a lot of upside with those two but with how little Gustafsson is playing, it’s not like they’re getting much with him either.
I’m not going to get into the lack of power plays. That’s par for the course in the playoffs and given that Montreal isn’t very good with the man advantage and is one of the better five-on-five teams in the league, that’s probably not a bad thing.
But let’s talk about Chris Lee. Yes, his performance in Games 3 and 4 were nothing short of abysmal but that’s also normal with him. My biggest concern is that he was even there in the first place.
Officials are evaluated throughout the regular season and playoffs to determine who moves on and who goes home. In what possible reality is Lee objectively one of the top eight referees in the league? Have things really gotten that bad that quickly?
I’m not one to think the league should be making decisions based on commentary from the media but there’s no possible way he moves on, is there? If that happens, yikes.
Lost in the excitement of the Habs moving on is that Evans participated in Thursday’s game-day skate without a no-contact jersey for the first time. That came on the heels of several practices with that restriction. With a few more days to prepare, it sure looks like he’ll be available for the series opener or very soon after.
But who does he replace? Artturi Lehkonen took his spot but he just scored the series-winning goal to get them to the Final. I’m pretty sure it’s not him. Paul Byron was a scratch at times during the season but that line got going as the series progressed. Eric Staal has had some good and bad moments but do they want to mess with the ‘fourth’ line considering the playoffs they’ve had?
Considering how effective Evans played before his concussion against Winnipeg, it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a spot for him in the lineup. But with how they’re playing right now, he may very well have to wait for an opportunity to get back in. That’s a nice ‘problem’ to have.
The Pressure Narrative
Technically speaking, the Habs are underdogs heading into the Final based on regular season numbers. But that doesn’t mean that Montreal gets to argue that the pressure is more on the opponent than them. This is the playoffs, everyone has pressure.
There was pressure coming back against Toronto. There was pressure getting through Winnipeg in what became a very winnable series when Mark Scheifele was suspended. There was definitely pressure against Vegas no matter how they tried to spin that the pressure was on the Golden Knights more. It’s a lazy narrative. When you’re in the final four, there’s plenty of pressure, especially when you’re on a team that no one expected to get there and let’s face it, I don’t think there are many people thinking they’ll make it back to this spot next year. It’s now or never, so to speak.
Now it’s the Stanley Cup Final. The spotlight is magnified considerably. The standings in the regular season are meaningless at this point and has no bearing on who has more pressure. Frankly, it’s irrelevant who has more pressure or even if a team has more pressure. Quit trying to deflect it. Embrace it. It’s the Cup Final and the Habs have earned the right to be in that pressure situation. Seize the moment.