The long wait for the third round of the NHL playoffs finally ended on Monday night as the Habs were in Vegas to battle the Golden Knights. The Canadiens were once again heavy underdogs for this series, but unlike the series against the Jets, they were the ones coming off a lengthy break so momentum would surely be missed.
Coach Ducharme kept the same forward lines as the last series, but the absence of Jeff Petry meant that Brett Kulak remained with Joel Edmundson on the second pair while Alexander Romanov and Erik Gustafsson completed the defensive unit. As expected, Carey Price faced Marc-Andre Fleury for a second consecutive star-studded goaltending matchup. The Habs came out flying, but for the first time this playoff, they had their physicality matched and they had no answer for this as they lost the first game by a 4-1 score.
If the Jets looked rusty last series, the Habs came out flying after their long wait. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Josh Anderson’s physicality sent the Knights reeling, and Phillip Danault’s line then took advantage by getting some early scoring chances against the Chandler Stephenson line. 2:38 in, Romanov got physical with Jonathan Marchessault who didn’t control his stick and took a high sticking penalty. The power play got some zone time but couldn’t convert.
As Vegas began to push once even, Romanov absolutely hammered Alex Pietrangelo to once again send the Knights reeling. In the sequence that followed the hit, Fleury made big saves on Nick Suzuki, Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Artturi Lehkonen, and Brendan Gallagher. It was six minutes into the series and the “better” Knights had stopped playing hockey and they were looking strictly for a physical presence allowing Montreal to bury them in their defensive zone.
Unfortunately for the Habs, their long streak without a deficit came to an end 9:15 into the period. A lost defensive zone draw by Suzuki created a cross-ice pass to Shea Theodore who one-timed it from the blue line. The shot had eyes as Theodore used Gustafsson as a screen to beat Price and open the scoring. The goal energized Vegas as they pressured the Habs after the goal, but true to form, the Habs bent but did not break.
The rest of the period saw the Knights fight back as it was their turn to exercise some punishment on Montreal’s defenders with a heavy forecheck. Overall, the second half of the period was played in the neutral zone with both teams quite cautious, but also very physical. Danault was penalized for what I thought was a rather weak hooking minor with 1:40 to play. But the Habs killed it off and ended the period ahead 12-8 in shots, behind 23-21 in hits (I really meant it when I said both teams were physical) and 1-0 where it counted most.
The second period saw what was expected in the series come to the stage as the Knights absolutely buried the Habs all period long. The 20 second-kill to start the period quickly turned into more as Ben Chiarot cleared the puck the length of the ice over the glass for a delay of game penalty. Max Pacioretty got the best chance for the Knights but missed the net.
At 2:18, so immediately after the penalties expired, the Habs were scrambling in coverage and a rebound came out to Theodore who faked the shot and found Alec Martinez for a 2-0 lead as Kulak, who was without a doubt the most intimidated player on the ice from puck drop, was checking air on the side of the net.
Vegas kept coming as they then took advantage of a bad pinch by Chiarot to take off 2-on-1. Pacioretty found Mark Stone who was robbed by Price’s glove. Then Edmundson was late on a play and took a slashing penalty. Paul Byron saved Edmundson as he took off and created a Vegas penalty 15 seconds later. Nothing happened on the 4-on-4 before Kulak took another obvious penalty for tripping. Luckily for the Habs, they killed the penalty despite seeing their opponents dominate the period.
The second half of the period started with a slew foot by Alexandre Carrier on Gallagher. The man advantage took advantage as a quick tic-tac-toe play from Suzuki to Perry to Toffoli created a huge rebound but it was Fleury’s turn to absolutely rob Cole Caufield. Seconds later, the same play was executed with the same rebound coming to Caufield, but this time he buried it to cut the deficit to 2-1.
However, this did not slow down Vegas who continued their physical dominance in the period and this time got a bit of puck luck. Alex Tuch fired on net from the top of the outside of the top of the circle but saw his shot bounce off Romanov, off Kulak and right on the stick of Mattias Janmark who had a tap-in for a 3-1 lead.
Price had to be masterful the entire period as he made multiple excellent saves to keep the deficit where it was. With two minutes to play, a brutal Edmundson play in the defensive zone created another chance with Price making another cross-crease save. Price winked at Edmundson after the save to reassure his veteran defender who was clearly frustrated with not being able to keep up with the pace of the Knights. The period thankfully ended for the Habs with the Knights holding a 13-5 shot advantage as the Canadiens would have to be better to help out the Carey Price show in the second.
The third period saw the Knights shut down the play and the Habs really obliged by not attacking the middle of the ice too often. What became painfully clear in the third is that Montreal was intimidated by Vegas’ physical play. The only push they really had was a strong shift by the Suzuki line seven minutes into the period. Immediately after that, Perry was rocked by Zach Whitecloud, and then Chiarot and Pacioretty exchanged dirty plays that should have been penalties.
At 10:06, the Habs got running around looking for a hit and Nick Holden was left alone for a cross-ice play to make it 4-1. The Habs will quickly have to get their wingers engaged in covering the backdoor as it was the second goal scored by the weak side defender cheating down low. Ducharme took out the blender in the last 10 minutes and a line of Anderson-Byron-Gallagher got some scoring chances.
With 4:36 to play, Price was pulled and the Habs had a few great looks as Fleury made some huge saves, many of them seemingly having no idea he’d made the save as he spent the last five minutes looking behind him. If I’m the Habs coaching staff, watching Fleury scramble all over the ice at the end is the clip that I’m showing to drive home the idea that the team needs to crash the net because that netminder is not in control. Anyways, the game ended without another Habs goal, a disappointing start to the series to say the least.
HabsWorld Habs Three Stars
First Star – Carey Price
Other than the first period, this game stayed close only because Carey Price is an all-world talent that kept his defenders from being completely humiliated. Price made some unbelievable stops and once again didn’t get the run support to make this a game. Heck, other than Caufield, he barely got scoring chance support outside the opening 10 minutes.
Stats: 26 saves, 30 shots, .867 save %, 4.29 GAA, 55:59 TOI
Second Star – Cole Caufield
Not sure if it’s because he’s too young to understand what he is living, but Caufield looked absolutely unfazed in all aspects of his game. He had the most scoring chances on the team by a wide margin and ended up being the team’s sole goal-scorer. No doubt that this rookie won’t be the team’s problem moving forward in this series.
Stats: 1 goal, -1, 6 shots, 15:43 TOI
Third Star – Brendan Gallagher
Gallagher started quite strong and was all over Fleury early, even getting the opposing netminder to lose his cool and participate in a scrum after the whistle. This should have been a good indication for the Habs. Unfortunately, and unexpectedly, the Knights pushed back enough to seemingly intimidate the Habs in this first game. Considering the presence of Gallagher and Perry, it’s an intimidation they simply can’t play with if they want success. The team will have to follow Gallagher to battle if they want a chance.
Stats: 3 shots, 1 hit, 13:47 TOI
Honourable Mention – Alexander Romanov
Critical of the Habs blue line all night long, the exception to this rule appeared to be rookie Romanov who was physical, didn’t get intimidated by the Knights pushing back, and continued a night where he was strong while making some excellent plays with the puck. If I’m Ducharme, Romanov starts the next game next to Edmundson in the top four if Jeff Petry can’t go because the stage appeared way too big for Kulak on this night.
Stats: -2, 2 hits (don’t know how they count these?), 15:11 T.O.I.