They were practically dead in the water, drowning after being pummeled 4-0 on home ice and held to just four goals in the first four games of this series against a Toronto Maple Leafs team that beat them in seven of 10 regular-season games and finished 18 points ahead in the standings. And if anyone was giving the Montreal Canadiens a chance at that point, after so few gave them a chance before this series started, they were delusional.
But the Canadiens kicked their way to the surface with three consecutive wins, the last of which — Monday’s 3-1 series-clincher — never seemed in doubt for a single second once the puck dropped at Scotiabank Arena.
“That was our best game of the series,” Carey Price told Sportsnet’s Kyle Bukauskas after it.
It was one of the best ones he’s played in his 14 years defending an NHL net.
It was Price who gave the Canadiens a puncher’s chance of defying the predictions from the beginning of Game 1, and it was Price who authoritatively stamped their ticket to Winnipeg like he was punching an Auston Matthews shot away with his blocker.
Oh, the shots from Big No. 34, the NHL’s most gifted goal scorer, who captured the Rocket Richard Trophy with 41 in 52 regular-season games — many of them scored with a bum wrist — could’ve snuffed out decades of playoff misery for the Maple Leafs if not for Price’s armor. He came into Game 7 with one goal on a series-leading 32 shots and finished the night with two more on the scoresheet that Price took away. Price kicked another one that didn’t register wide of the net.
Linemates Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman scored on one between them through the first six games and were held to none despite combining for eight shots in Game 7.
With the score 3-0, and with just 1:36 remaining in the third period, William Nylander beat Price on the blocker side. But the way the 33-year-old goaltender made his 29 saves before that, it appeared —a nd inevitably proved — virtually impossible 1:36 would be enough time to score even one more goal on him, let alone two.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher.
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It wasn’t just about Price’s play. Phillip Danault admitted that without his leadership and the comments he made following last Monday’s devastating Game 4 — about how he wasn’t frustrated by the Canadiens not scoring enough to that point and about how he had no doubt their talent would shine through in the end — this would have been over in five games.
“When you have a goaltender who battles every night and keeps you in every game — even when he’s not at 100 per cent — and when he makes a statement like that, it certainly gives you energy,” Danault said, “It gave confidence to the team. It made us feel like he was saying, ‘Boys, I got your back, and let’s go.’
“I thought it was an enormous statement, and everyone also looked in the mirror and was able to give more. Really, everyone looked in the mirror and stepped up together.”
It was Danault who said before Game 5 that he was born for situations like these, and he went out and proved it.
Has there been a forward in NHL history to play as prominent a role in a series without scoring a single point?
If Price was the antidote to Matthews and Marner, Danault was their poison, paralyzing them up and down the ice shift after shift. The irony in him going his first 24 games of the season without a goal and getting roasted by fans and media for turning down a long-term extension in this pandemic-stricken economy is delicious now.
Danault put in a performance the great Bob Gainey would bow to.
“I hope everyone realizes how important Phil is and how good of a series he had,” Gallagher said. “I talked about Matthews and Marner and how difficult they are to play against. Phil had that matchup every single shift of the series.
“We got Pricey back there, we’ve got (Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson) going up against them, but Phil is equally as big in that. That’s the responsibility that we put on him — especially with the young guys up the middle — the matchups he gets. I just have so much respect for Phil and what he’s able to do… and he enjoyed the matchup as well. You should see him down there, he’s got the biggest smile on his face.”
Gallagher, who scored his first of the series to make it 1-0 at 3:02 of the second period, wore the marks of what it takes to win in the playoffs on his. A cut on his right cheek, a matching one on the left and a cut right down the middle of the bridge of his nose are the badges of honour he carries to Winnipeg.
Marner, who was stick-checked by another battle-tested playoff performer in Eric Staal for the turnover that led to the Gallagher goal, faced the difficult questions he knew he would after failing to score for a second consecutive playoff series following his signing of a six-year, $65.4-million contract. His faced was unblemished as he delivered this answer about not meeting his own lofty expectations:
“I just have to make sure that it stops happening.”
A video review of Corey Perry’s work opposite him and the Maple Leafs in Game 7 might be a good place to find a cue.
Was it lucky that Nick Suzuki’s shot glanced off Perry’s knee for what proved to be the game-winner, scored with less than five minutes to play in the second period? Yes.
But Perry’s 102nd point in his 152nd Stanley Cup Playoffs game was scored from the blue paint. As was his other goal in this series, in Game 6. His Hall-of-Fame-worthy career has been a playbook on how to make your own luck, and it was no surprise to see him come through once again with everything on the line.
But this win was as much about Perry, Price, Danault and Gallagher as it was Erik Gustafsson.
Montreal’s ninth defenceman played just 10:20 as their sixth in Game 7, but he did exactly what was asked of him — helping the Montreal power-play strike on Perry’s goal and making “the little plays that lead to big ones,” as Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme would say.
His role in all of this was undeniable, as he tuned out the noise and stuck his guns on decisions undersold by the word bold.
“That’s our job as a coach,” Ducharme said of scratching Jesperi Kotkaniemi for the first game, Cole Caufield for the first two, Alex Romanov for all seven and Tomas Tatar for the last two. “I think I talked about the first day in Winnipeg when I was named the head coach (on Feb. 24) that I had eight million assistant coaches. So, everyone’s got their opinion, but at the end of the day we’re inside with those guys every day and we talk together as a group, a staff and I make the final decision. That’s the way it works, and we’ll keep doing that.”
Think you know how this year’s playoffs will unfold? Before every round, from Round 1 to the Stanley Cup Final, predict the winners and number of games for each series and answer a few prop questions.
The Canadiens will have to be even better against a Jets team that dispatched of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers in a four-game sweep.
But before they get to that, this one is worth celebrating. Especially after the proved everyone wrong.
“They found themselves, certainly through Game 5 and six and seven,” said Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “I thought you could feel a little bit of a shift in their team when Kotkaniemi and Caufield came into the lineup for them. You could just sense things shift a little bit in terms of their depth and their speed and skill and those kind of things that changed the dynamic of the series a little bit, even though it took time for that traction.
“We had our opportunities to close this thing out clearly and failed to do so. You’ve got to give credit to Montreal for the job that they did.”