TORONTO — Kiss the draft lottery goodbye, Montreal Canadiens fans. Your team is one of 16 advancing to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The dream of Alexis Lafreniere in a bleu, blanc et rouge jersey evaporated on Friday—at least until some late-career trade becomes a possibility—with the Canadiens beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-0 in Game 4.
But he’s just one young player. Let’s think about what this means for the other ones who are already with this organization; a monumental upset achieved over a perennial contender has to be considered the most valuable experience kids like Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki can gain.
These two 20-year-olds played pivotal roles in this series, combining for three goals and matching up against the two best centres of an era.
They came out on top.
“I’d say that if we didn’t have the contribution of those two players, I’m not sure I’d be here right now having won this series,” said Canadiens head coach Claude Julien. ”Those two players made such a difference. It’s certain that our goaltender was excellent. Our three big defenceman played a huge role and were excellent as well. But without the contribution from the rest of the team—and that’s where the youngsters were involved—that’s what made the difference.”
This was what these Canadiens came here for.
It’s not what management was pining for after the team stumbled through its season and was on its way to tumbling lower down in the standings when the games came to a screeching halt in March due to the novel coronavirus.
Two years ago, when the Canadiens bottomed out and finished in 28th place, general manager Marc Bergevin went to the draft lottery and told reporters that the team suffered great pain to get an opportunity at a high pick. He must have been hoping for the same result this time around—especially with what would amount to as a 1-in-8 chance of drafting a Quebec-born superstar in Lafreniere.
But this is some consolation prize.
“We have an opportunity here to grow, and we can’t ask for a better occasion,” Julien said.
The wheels are already in motion—and not just for Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, but also for 21-year-olds Ryan Poehling and Cale Fleury. Even if they didn’t see the ice in this series, they’re here in this atmosphere, going through the preparations, soaking in the feeling and knowing they could make their mark moving forward.
That can’t be seen as anything but a positive.
What do you think it did for 22-year-old Victor Mete—who played steadily on Montreal’s third defensive pairing to help contribute to this monumental achievement—who experienced this?
His game improved with every shift, just like Suzuki’s and Kotkaniemi’s did.
They had help. Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak put a blanket on this dynamic Penguins offence. A line of Paul Byron, Artturi Lehkonen and Phillip Danault was a bear for Malkin’s line with Jason Zucker and Patric Hornqvist to contend with, with Lehkonen punctuating their performance by scoring the wining goal with 4:11 remaining in the third period.
Carey Price started this party. The 32-year-old stole Game 1, he stopped 104 of 111 Penguins shots before stopping every one he faced in Game 4 and he vaulted himself back on top of the goaltending food chain.
“I also saw him at the Olympics, and in the World Cup here a few years ago, I’ve seen him at his best often,” Julien said. “He feels good and he’s in his bubble, in his zone. He continues to play big games. And it’s certain that, with a young team, you hope to have good goaltending. But we got excellent goaltending in this series.”
The Canadiens got more than that.
They limped out to a series lead and relinquished it quickly. But what they offered over the final two wins was a stifling performance, and they shocked the Penguins and the rest of the hockey world in the process.
And the kids. You just can’t say enough about them.
Suzuki shadowed Crosby all game, holding him to zero scoring chances at 5-on-5. Happy 33rd birthday, Sid.
Kotkaniemi was brilliant throughout.
“Everybody talked before this series about how much more experience they had than us,” Weber said. “I almost thought it was kind of a good thing these young guys didn’t realize how big a deal it was. They stepped up. Guys played really well against two of the top centres in the league, so, to say the least, guys did a good job.
“Those guys took huge steps. Even through the pause over three months they’ve gotten even better. I’m not sure how it would look playing games, but they obviously did work at home—whether it’s off the ice or skating. They’ve definitely gotten better and it’s a big, big help for us.”
How far it could propel the Canadiens is anybody’s guess.
Things only get tougher from here—they always do—and the Canadiens are going to need more from some of their other players. To think they won this series without a single goal from co-regular-season leaders Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher is mind-boggling.
It’s a remarkable feat, and the Canadiens are hoping it’s the first of five. No one outside of their room gave them a puncher’s chance at beating these Penguins, but it’s clear that they believed and that helped them score a knockout before the final round.
What will they take from it?
“It’s not so much what you learn, but it’s what we were able to prove,” Julien said. “I always felt we had good leadership, good character. We’re a young team. We had some areas there that, during the season, we wanted to see improve. And we’ve got an opportunity, here in the playoffs, to come and play under pressure situations, and what I’ve liked about our team is how well we handled it. Say what you want, whether it’s ignorance from a young group that doesn’t know any better, whatever you want to call it—and I know [Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella] used a different term [on Thursday], but we’re believing in ourselves. We’re having fun and I think we’re enjoying the success that we’re having right now.
“But we also know the next round will be against a top-seeded team and we’re going to have to be even better.”