The last time a Canadian team made it to the Stanley Cup Finals was 2011. The Vancouver Canucks got so close to winning a cup for Canada, losing in seven games to the Boston Bruins. The last time a Canadian team won the cup was 1993, when Montreal captured the trophy over the Los Angeles Kings.
History awaited Montreal Thursday night, but the Vegas Golden Knights were still in the way. Game six in Montreal went to overtime again, where suddenly the Canadiens were magic, moving to five and one in extra time with a 3-2 win.
The Montreal Canadiens will play for the Stanley Cup.
It was interesting to hear acting head coach Luke Richardson refer to the top four defenders on the Canadiens as four Chris Prongers. It reveals how the club perceives their defensive corps and also what they value as a good defenceman. It’s hard to argue with the assessment, because what Pronger would do was wear his opponent down with so much physical contact that by the end of the series, no one wanted any part of him.
It’s like that for the Canadiens defenders now. They win a ton of puck battles. They block out and punish. They added enough offence so far during this post-season that Montreal is still enjoying hockey in late June.
One thing they had not done though this entire playoffs, though, was get a goal from Shea Weber. It finally happened in the playoffs for the first time in 21 games, when Weber pounded a slap shot home by a screened Robin Lehner.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi did not get a point on the play, but he was just as much responsible for the goal as Weber was. Kotkaniemi with a perfectly timed fly-by in front of Lehner as he had absolutely no idea where the shot was. He didn’t look at any time, but just heard the roar of the crowd as the Canadiens took the lead.
The deeper you go in the playoffs, the higher level of excellence you need to succeed. Enter Cole Caufield with the score tied at one in the second period. Caufield gets a pass at the blue line. He has Brayden McNabb right in front of him. Right away, Caufield knows one thing: That he can beat McNabb for speed, but he cannot beat him for strength. First thing he does is not hold the pass that he receives, but push the pass beyond both players into the offensive zone.
This means that McNabb can’t get physical with Caufield as that would be holding, and he can’t get to the puck first, either. Caufield with one little intelligent move has turned this moment from a physical battle into a speed race. We know who won that race, don’t we?
The job is not even close to done, though. Caufield is the outside man, so McNabb can still get at the puck, if Caufield doesn’t protect it. He does.
Now, only the shot remains. That part you know. Bar Down can get it done as well as any single hockey player in the world. The shot is perfection, just under the bar from Caufield. That’s four goals and five assists for nine points in 15 playoff games. Caufield didn’t play in the first two games. He’s tied for third on the team in scoring behind only Tyler Toffoli and Nick Suzuki.
Trevor Timmins got Caufield at 15 overall, a remarkable pick and a remarkable addition to the team. People ask how the Habs are able to do this in the playoffs, when the regular season wasn’t so amazing. Firstly, they were playing five games in eight nights for two months because of their COVID-19 scare. Secondly, they added Cole Caufield to the lineup. Talent makes a difference. Talent wins games.
If Caufield weren’t around, who even gets them to the playoffs that they barely made? He scored two overtime winners in the regular season. He set up Tyler Toffoli to eliminate the Winnipeg Jets in the second round. It takes everyone to get this far. It takes talent making plays.
Fan frenzy as Montreal Canadiens one win away from Stanley Cup finals
There’s still some hockey to play, but at this point, it is one amazing post-season penalty kill for the Canadiens. Montreal is now 43 of 46 in this post season. They have killed 30 straight penalties, frustrating both the Golden Knights and the Jets completely.
Here’s the new wrinkle to the penalty kill in the playoffs. Throughout the season, the Canadiens thought of a great kill as taking time and space away from their opponent around Carey Price. In the playoffs, they are making it uncomfortable everywhere on the ice. It’s 165 feet from Price and Artturi Lehkonen is all over the defender who can’t believe he is facing so much grief so far away from the goal.
It might just be a new wrinkle to penalty killing to enter the NHL used by every team as a strategy. Why begin defending 50 feet out, if you can begin 185 feet out without getting punished for it? The key is if you are going to be a Lehkonen, take away time and space right beside the Vegas goalie that you then don’t get caught out. You have to make sure you keep your check occupied, so he does not break free up ice without you.
The Canadiens’ penalty killers have taken 20 or 30 seconds away countless times, even before Toronto, Winnipeg, or Vegas gets even close to Montreal’s blue line. When the Canadiens have taken a penalty these playoffs, they lead 4-3. Allowing three power play markers, while scoring four times shorthanded. Surely, a positive ratio has never happened in NHL history in the post-season.
To overtime, where the magic continued. The number one line on the team has been assigned to take care of defence against the world’s best players. They have been so stellar at that it has made all the difference in the world. Offense has been sacrificed a bit, but that did not matter one bit when Brendan Gallagher made the play through the neutral zone.
He fed it to Philip Danault who seemed to be sending it to the right for a play on net with the backhand. He, instead, pushed it back to the left where Artturi Lehkonen let go to the top corner the shot of his lifetime.
The city broke out in a celebration. The Bell Centre went wild. 1993 to 2021: that’s the gap. Welcome back, Montreal, to the Stanley Cup finals.
Joel Edmundson has been the steadiest of the Big Four blue-liners for the Canadiens this post-season. You can sure see why GM Marc Bergevin wanted him. Edmundson won a cup with St. Louis. He did not get a lot of ink for that, but he took a regular shift for the Blues and was a big part of the reason that they hoisted a trophy over their heads in June.
Edmundson makes so few mistakes. He just does the game right. He plays big, and he boxes out beautifully. He also takes away the stick of his opponent extremely well. However, he was unable to on the Golden Knights first goal as Shea Theodore, instead of trying to beat Carey Price with a shot, slapped it to miss the net. This is where he found Reilly Smith for a tip-in.
It was the first goal for the Golden Knights second line this entire series. Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, and William Karlsson have been shut down, so when they finally got on the board, it was a big moment for Vegas in terms of hope and confidence.
The goal came right after the Habs had opened the scoring. Montreal has been outstanding at scoring first and then keeping that lead. Their record before game six was 10 wins and only two losses when scoring first.
Make that 11-2 as the Canadiens were strong to a man to make the Wilde Goats a section that again barely needs to be filled.
The Canadiens will, no doubt, ask for the government to allow more fans into the building for the finals. The province vaccinated 120, 000 additional people on Friday. There were fewer than 100 cases.
The province has not been healthier since March of 2020. The province has not been happier since 1993.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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