TORONTO — The real test starts now, with a chance — two of them, actually — to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Montreal Canadiens may have been gifted these games by the NHL, but would anyone suggest they didn’t earn the opportunity to be one of the final 16 teams standing if they ended up making good on their 2-1 series lead in this qualifying round? Would anyone say they’re undeserving of moving on if they knocked off the most experienced team in this tournament — a three-time Cup champion with this core?
What is this, if not an opportunity for the Canadiens to earn some respect? There’s been so much talk about what they don’t have — experience, high-end talent, depth, a functional power play — that it’s been easy to ignore what they do have.
Carey Price has gotten his due, though he had to work his way there. Sure, the players around the league considered him the best goaltender in the world prior to the puck dropping in this series, but who else did?
Price’s numbers over the last three seasons put a huge dent in his reputation as top dog, but he’s barking loudest after a week’s worth of games, after having made 104 saves on 111 shots from this supremely skilled Penguins team.
No goaltender in this tournament has made more saves than the 31 Price has come up with from the high-danger zone, according to naturalstattrick.com.
But it hasn’t just been Price.
Sure, he stole Game 1, and he did everything possible to give the Canadiens the edge in a Game 2 they didn’t deserve, but they showed what they can be in Game 3: a fast, dynamic, in-your-face team.
As a result, Matt Murray has been chased from his net, with Penguins coach Mike Sullivan confirming on Friday morning that he’s turning to Tristan Jarry, who has never played an NHL playoff game before.
Jarry’s coming in off four-and-a-half months’ worth of rest after having watched the first three games of this series, but Sullivan isn’t concerned about that.
"His work habits and practice have been terrific all year," said Sullivan of the goaltender who had a .921 save percentage in 33 appearances this season. "I think that transfers. I think that those types of habits transfer to a game environment. Tristan deserves a lot of credit for how hard he’s worked on his game and where he’s at today. He’s a real good goalie."
We know what the team in front of Jarry is capable of. So does Sullivan.
"We believe in the group we have, and you know this group has accomplished an awful lot in their careers and they’ve been on both sides of it," the coach said. "So, they understand what’s at stake, they know where we’re at. Now we’ve just got to go out and play. We’ve got to control what we can. We’ve got to go out and play and we’ve got to put our best game on the ice and they know that."
Canadiens coach Claude Julien knows it, too.
"We have probably our biggest challenge of all right now," he said just hours ahead of Game 4. "You got a team against a wall and a team that you know knows how to handle these kinds of situations. So you know we’re going to need our best game (Friday afternoon). It’s as simple as that."
We know what the Canadiens are when they’re at their best. When they keep their feet moving, they’re one of the fastest teams in the league. They have speed, they have structure, they have balance, and they have will and the ignorance-is-bliss of youth propelling them.
They’ve made it to this point on all of that, and not just by standing on Price’s shoulders.
"I mean, Price has been really solid. He’s been making key saves for us, which keep us in the games," said Canadiens top centre Phillip Danault on Thursday. "But we’ve shown some character, we’ve gone toe-to-toe, we’ve embraced the challenge. That’s the best way to say it: we’ve embraced the challenge. And we’re here to win and we’re here to have fun, and that’s what’s happening right now."
This is about the evolution of a team.
It took the Canadiens being given a clean canvas to work with after they destroyed the first one from October to March by stumbling their way to 24th in the league, but they’re painting now. The process is advancing, with key young players gaining the most valuable experience of their careers to date and the veterans of the team playing like they know chances like these are not to be wasted.
Do the Canadiens have killer instinct?
"That test will come this afternoon," said Julien. "It’s certain that they have players on the other side that are capable of changing the complexion of a series and we’re aware of it. Like I said before, we know we’re going to have to have our best game. As much as we’re happy about how we’ve started this series, finishing it will be the most important thing. And that chance comes this afternoon."