TORONTO — If it’s the unexpected you crave, you’ve come to the right place.
Welcome to the Stanley Cup Playoffs (play-ins), where anything is possible. Where games are played in August, in just two arenas, and with no fans in attendance. Where the 24th seed in an unprecedented 24-team tournament can beat the seventh seed.
Where a kid, whose season was supposed to end prematurely in the American Hockey League, can score the all-important first goal of the game and his 20-year-old rookie teammate can score the second one. Where two of the greatest players of all-time can be held largely in check. And where a goaltender can somehow play above even the loftiest of expectations.
They won 3-2 in overtime, just like you predicted. Right?
Buoyed by Carey Price’s heroics through the first six minutes of the game — he turned aside 10 Penguins shots before his teammates got their legs underneath them — the Canadiens found a way to get a 1-0 lead.
It was a mess of a goal, with a puck syphoned back to the point — while two Penguins collided with each other in the slot — before it plinko’d its way off Paul Byron’s stick then Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s body and past Matt Murray. You know, the kind of goal you always see at playoff time. A lucky, sneaky, greasy goal.
Maybe one day Kotkaniemi will tell his children he roofed a one-timer for his first-ever playoff marker.
Nick Suzuki won’t have to lie about his. Late in the seventh minute of the second period he pickpocketed Brian Dumoulin, charged down his off-wing and ripped a laser of a wrist shot over Murray’s glove hand.
When Canadiens coach Claude Julien was asked earlier on Saturday about Suzuki’s calm personality and how it might reassure him enough to use him in a matchup against goliaths like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, he spelled out the inconvenient truth of this situation for his Canadiens.
“It’s not a knock on anybody when I say this, but we don’t have a choice,” Julien said. “We have a young team.”
And the Penguins?
They’ve won three Stanley Cups in the last 11 years and have over 1,400 games of playoff experience between them.
But somehow that didn’t stop Kotkaniemi, Suzuki and this unheralded Canadiens team from making this much more of a series than anyone thought it would be.
“Well, you know it’s what we said that right from the get go: we’re playing an experienced team, they’ve won Stanley Cups, they know how to win, and we have what we have and the only chance we have is that we play on our toes and not on our heels and go out there, have some confidence [and] play hard,” said Julien. “We’ll put you out there because we have confidence and you just got to go out there and show it. I think that was the message from us as a coaching staff [to Kotkaniemi and Suzuki], but also there’s also a message coming from your teammates, and their teammates are supporting them and giving them the confidence that they need. So I think they feel pretty good about where they are right now in our group and I hope that they can continue to play that way because they were definitely keys to our victory tonight.”
Kotkaniemi, who debuted as the NHL’s youngest player in 2018-19, just months after being drafted third overall, had a torturous, injury-riddled sophomore season that ended after he suffered a spleen injury in his 12th game as a member of the minor-league affiliate Laval Rocket.
The kid from Pori, Finland wasn’t expected to factor into Montreal’s lineup for this series. But the four-and-a-half-month pause due to the novel coronavirus gave Kotkaniemi new life, and his showing in Montreal’s 13-game training camp gave him confidence.
If you want a sample of confidence, look at what Suzuki offered in this game. The kid from London, Ont., played half of his even-strength minutes against Crosby and Malkin. He helped kill the majority of the 5-on-3 advantage the Penguins had in the third period, and he engineered Montreal’s best opportunities on their two power plays of the game.
Not bad, considering Suzuki started off nervous.
But he settled in quickly and found his best self for the rest of the night.
“As a line, we had a rough start. We were trapped in the d-zone a lot,” Suzuki said. “But the coaching staff was really on us before the game even started, yesterday, just talking [about how] we’ve got to be ready, [that] our time will come as a line. If it’s not in the first period, we’ve just got to keep working. We have enough skill on that line to generate offence.”
The message Julien and his associates fed to the rest of the team clearly resonated, too. Especially ahead of overtime.
“I said to the guys, ‘If we’re afraid to lose, we’ll lose. If we’re determined to win, we’ll find a way to win,’” Julien explained. “That’s what we did.”
The Canadiens never would’ve done it had it not been for what Price offered.
The 32-year-old was otherworldly, turning aside 18 shots in the first period and 21 more before all was said and done.
“Carey was huge throughout that whole first period and gave us a chance to come back and kind of adjust ourselves for the second and the rest of the game,” said Julien. “He made some big saves throughout the whole game, but the first period is where he allowed us to stay in the game and gave us a chance to win this.”
The Penguins clawed back from down 2-0 with goals from Crosby and Bryan Rust in the second period. They threatened to blow the game wide open on the power play, where they had seven opportunities on the night — including that 5-on-3 in the third. Conor Sheary had a penalty shot with 3:03 remaining in the frame.
But the Canadiens dodged those bullets and found a way to fire off some shots of their own. Thirty-four of them, in fact, before the final one left Jeff Petry’s stick and beat Murray with 6:03 remaining in the first overtime.
It felt like a bad omen for the Canadiens when Jonathan Drouin bobbled his own penalty shot in the seventh minute of the extra frame, stickhandling his way into a whiff on the puck.
But it didn’t matter in the end.
The Canadiens flipped the script, stunned the Penguins — and just about everyone else. Because it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs, breeding ground for the unexpected to come to life.