TORONTO — Somewhere in the west island of Montreal, Claude Julien is smiling.
After a tumultuous 48 hours — starting with a Game 1 loss for his Canadiens, followed by a trip to the hospital with chest pains and then a coronary procedure to insert an artery stent, and ending with him celebrating a win from his home — the coach had to have been ebullient. For 60 minutes, his team was everything he ever hoped they’d be: aligned, engaged, shot out of a cannon and working straight to the end.
The result was a 5-0 romp over a Philadelphia Flyers team that hadn’t lost a game since Mar. 10.
Series tied: 1-1.
With Julien at home, and Kirk Muller standing in with his finger on the pulse — he pulled Dale Weise out of the lineup, inserted Jake Evans at centre, moved Joel Armia to the fourth line and Max Domi to one with Jonathan Drouin and Jesperi Kotkaniemi — the Canadiens began a dominant effort with two goals, a 16-6 shot advantage and a 34-16 edge in attempts in just the first period.
To say they were inspired would be an understatement.
“We for sure wanted to win for both [Julien and Muller],” said Drouin. “When you look at the energy we started the game with on the bench and on the ice, it was incredible. It was a start that led to the first two goals and we just built on it. The way we were skating, the way we were on the puck, it was impressive. It was one of our best games.”
It was one of Philadelphia’s worst, with Flyers coach Alain Vigneault saying afterwards, “We got our butts kicked today in all facets of the game.”
Their first shot of the game came 16:23 in — a wrist shot from 44 feet out, off the stick of captain Claude Giroux.
It was about as dangerous as the Flyers were in this game, which is to say they weren’t very dangerous at all.
Late in the second period, after they failed on a five-on-three power play, Travis Konecny skated to the bench and made three attempts at breaking his stick over the boards. No dice. It was a perfect snapshot of the frustration he and his Philadelphia teammates experienced in this game.
On Montreal’s side of the ledger, it was all aces. Had they made a checklist of what they wanted to get out of this game, they’d have come away from it with nearly every box filled.
Tomas Tatar, the Canadiens’ leading scorer in the regular season, scored his first two goals of these Stanley Cup Playoffs and afterwards said he was certainly relieved. Domi, after five point-less games, got bumped up the lineup and helped set up three goals. Montreal’s power play, which stumbled all season and failed on all 12 attempts in the qualifying round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, came through for a second straight game. And Armia, alongside Alex Belzile and Evans, scored his first goal of the playoffs by banking one in with a little over 22 minutes to play.
The goal chased Carter Hart from his net.
The freshly-turned 22-year-old had been nothing short of brilliant in his playoff debut, stopping just under 97 per cent of the shots he faced through three starts, and he was hardly to blame. Hart had little help and the Canadiens were full value.
If Julien had set the structure long ago, Muller set the tone right before the game started.
“It was more of a gut (decision),” he said of the line tweaks he made. “We have a lot of respect for our opponent right now and just before it started it was kind of just a gut feeling to change things around, and it either works or it doesn’t. We asked some guys to step up and in order to do that you’ve got to get them into the game early and see if they respond. And a lot of guys did tonight, so it made it easy for me.”
The Canadiens weren’t perfect, but it’s hard to imagine they can play much better.
When they bent, they didn’t break. Up 3-0 early in the second period, the Canadiens took consecutive penalties and gave the Flyers that five-on-three opportunity for 1:38. Their captain, Shea Weber, helped kill off 1:35 of it.
Not bad for a guy who had just turned 35 when the clock struck midnight.
“It’s nothing new,” said Weber’s defence partner, Ben Chiarot. “This is something he’s done his whole career. We’re talking about 14, 15 years of being one of the best defencemen in the NHL. He’s a guy who does everything the right way every single day. That’s why he’s our captain and why he’s still one of the best defencemen in the game — even at his age. He takes care of himself and does all the right things; you see that on the ice, that’s why he’s so effective for us.”
Leadership in the absence of the head coach was an essential ingredient to this impressive Canadiens win.
When the Flyers pressed, there was soon-to-be 33-year-old Carey Price, providing his.
The Montreal goaltender wasn’t the difference; he was just Price. He faced 30 shots and turned them all aside for his second shutout in six games. He boosted his save percentage in these playoffs from an immaculate .945 up to .954.
But the big story was a firing-on-all-cylinders performance from his teammates, one that Julien has longed to see all season. They stumbled to a 31-31-9 record and a 24th-placed finish, and they seldom, if ever, looked anything like the team that was on the ice Friday.
That the Canadiens found their best game without Julien on their bench was bittersweet.
Not that he was upset about it.
“He was one of the first guys to congratulate us on the big win,” said Muller. “To Claude, I’m sure he’s listening, this win is for you and your family.”
A vital one, achieved against this powerhouse Flyers team to wrestle away home-ice advantage. A satisfying win to the great relief of Muller, who had spent three years as a head coach in Carolina but never once called the shots for a playoff game.
“We came in, the players know their roles, they know how we want to play, so it was easy for me,” Muller said. “The rest of the staff — they did a good job. Collectively, that’s really where our group is right now; we’re doing it in numbers. The players did what they had to do, a lot of guys stepped up, so it made my job easy. It was the players that won the game today.”
They did it at a breakneck pace, with all four lines, six defencemen and their goaltender contributing.
What a delight it must have been for Julien.