TORONTO — It happened early.
Nick Suzuki went to retrieve a puck on a delayed icing and Travis Konecny gave him two solid shots after the whistle.
The 21-year-old’s response? He smiled in Konecny’s face before Brendan Gallagher came crashing in with a crosscheck to settle the score.
It was the first instance of this Stanley Cup Playoffs series opener that told you the 24th-ranked Montreal Canadiens weren’t going to bow down to this intimidating, top-dog Philadelphia Flyers team. Not after a clear attempt to rough up one of their youngest players, and certainly not after a decisive first period that fell in Philadelphia’s favour.
The team that hasn’t lost since March came out and checked every box on their list over the first 20 minutes. They let Suzuki, the flashy Canadiens’ centre, know he was in for a rough ride. They stifled Montreal’s speed through the neutral zone at nearly every turn, they crashed Carey Price’s crease and set up screens to block his view, and they scored on their first power play after not finding a goal with the man-advantage in any of the four games prior to this one.
The shots read 11-5 Flyers, and the score 1-0. Canadiens coach Claude Julien, in the lead up to this series, repeatedly called them the most balanced and deepest team in these playoffs, and they lived up to the billing as soon as the puck dropped.
His team started off on its heels.
“I mean, the first period was a tough period for us, whether it was because we hadn’t played in the last four or five days or whether we’re a little nervous and trying to feel our way through,” Julien said afterwards.
But the Canadiens—a plucky, speedy group hungry to assert themselves—punched back. Hard.
“I thought in the second period, Montreal played a real strong period,” said Flyers coach Alain Vigneault. “They were first on pucks. They made us make bad decisions with the puck and they looked real fast.”
No doubt about it.
The Canadiens tilted the ice in the second period, out-shot the Flyers 17-7 and out-chanced them handily. Shea Weber gave them their first power-play goal of the playoffs 14:38 into the frame, and if not for a mistake-laden play, they’d have taken the game 1-1 to the second intermission.
It was Flyers rookie Joel Farabee who made them pay for it, making it 2-1 just 16 seconds after Weber’s shot hit the open net behind Carter Hart. It stood as the winning goal.
But this was no roll over from the Canadiens.
Led by a line of Phillip Danault, Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron, who combined for 13 of their 65 shot attempts, they got in Philadelphia’s face and stayed there until the final whistle blew. Danault won 57 per cent of his faceoffs, Lehkonen won nearly every loose puck and was a constant presence in front of Hart, and Byron had their best rush chances of the game.
“They were awesome, created a tonne of energy,” said Suzuki. “Around the net, getting chances. Since they’ve been together, they’ve been generating a lot for us. So it’s nice to see them do that, it just gives life on the bench to us.”
The Canadiens took it and ran with it, falling just short of tying this game and sending it to overtime.
In the process, they earned some respect from the Flyers. It’s a factor that should loom large ahead of Friday’s Game 2.
“You have got to give them credit,” said Philadelphia centre Sean Couturier. “They’re a good team.”
Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry and Shea Weber, Montreal’s Big Three on the back end, combined for 13 of their team’s 32 hits. And Suzuki and Gallagher did everything short of finding the back of the net, with Suzuki hitting the crossbar with 26 seconds remaining.
Whether it was Lehkonen’s dogged determination, or Price making a desperate stick save on Scott Laughton while Suzuki stood in the net waiting for a slapshot from in close that threatened to decapitate him, there was no lack of desperation in their game.
“I wasn’t quite sure what it hit, but it was coming at me,” said Suzuki of Laughton’s second-period opportunity. “I just kind of tucked my head and I was hoping it was going to hit me and block the shot. But Carey did an unbelievable job there saving that. Saved my head for sure.”
Price did his part, stopping 28 more shots the Flyers threw his way.
The Flyers got in his kitchen, and they created a fair amount of traffic in front of him and battled hard to create rebounds.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Price said. “I think every team in the National Hockey League is trying to do that right now.”
He withstood the charge, and so did his teammates.
The Canadiens led their own, peppering Hart and coming oh-so-close to taking over the game.
Granted, the Flyers missed some golden opportunities, too, with Claude Giroux hitting the post in the second period and former Canadiens centre Nate Thompson sliding a chance to score the insurance marker wide late in the third period.
But this wasn’t some dominant, confidence-shattering performance from the East’s top seed.
In Julien’s opinion, it was just a matter of the breaks going Philadelphia’s way.
“When I say breaks, we hit the post at the end,” he said. “If we score on that the end, we know we’re going into overtime here. You look at the shots against, you look at the scoring opportunities…Once we started playing, I think it’s just a matter of breaks. They got one more goal than we did.”
It didn’t exactly leave the Canadiens searching for answers.
Danault attributed their start to rust—they hadn’t played since last Friday’s series-clinching win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round—and said they established their confidence as things went along.
The Canadiens knew it was going to be attrition against the top-seeded Flyers. They lost the first battle, but they made it clear they’re in the war.
“We showed that we can play with them,” said Weber. “We believe that we can play with them. You know it’s a seven-game series. It was a tight game tonight and it should be a good series going forward.”