TORONTO— Claude Julien wanted to see more will and determination from his Montreal Canadiens, and they showed it to him at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday night.
Their reward? A stirring, come-from-behind 4-3 win to take a 2-1 series lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was Brendan Gallagher, clearly labouring enough to miss Wednesday’s morning skate, gutting his way through some pain and discomfort from an undisclosed injury to his right leg (ankle?) to play 24 shifts and 17:47. It was Shea Weber bearing down on a rebound opportunity to open the scoring for the Canadiens. It was Jonathan Drouin going to the net for a goal, and Paul Byron wrapping one in and taking an extra shot just make sure it crossed the line.
It was Carey Price stretching across his crease to steal a second goal away from Jason Zucker.
These Canadiens would be back in Montreal by now if not for his heroics. The 32-year-old goaltender came into Game 3 having stopped 74 of 78 Penguins shots—so many of them Grade-A chances—and he was brilliant once again, with 29 saves.
It wasn’t just will and determination from the group. It was pure desperation.
Byron put it in perspective afterwards.
“This was a fresh start for our team, fresh start for everybody,” he said. “We knew how big this opportunity was and where we were when we finished in March, and to get a chance like this just doesn’t come around very often. I’m 31, I haven’t played that much playoff hockey, so to have this opportunity put forth in front of us—I wanted to make sure that I just left everything I could on the ice, play as hard as I can. Having guys like Shea and Carey and Brendan playing the way they are for us—bringing out the heart in guys—it’s been a lot of fun playing alongside, and I just want to be in every shift for the team and do what I can to help out.”
Done deal on this night—both for him and the rest of the 24th ranked team in this 24-team tournament.
But not without tribulation…
Things were touch-and-go for a while there. Weber’s goal came at 4:57 of the first period, or a little less than three minutes before the Canadiens came out of their game plan and allowed the first of three unanswered goals.
The Penguins, who came into the game one-for-12 on the power play, found a way to beat Price on successive power plays Ben Chiarot and Weber offered them. It was Patric Hornqvist scoring the first one, and Zucker following with another 59 seconds later.
Penguins forward Teddy Blueger beat Victor Mete to a rebound and made it 3-1 in the sixth minute of the second period. In the 13th minute his linemate, Chris Tanev, threw a devastating hit on Jake Evans and knocked him out cold and out of the game.
Gut punch to the Canadiens.
That the Canadiens collected themselves and clawed their way back says much about their character. No one gave them a chance of winning this series and suddenly they’re a game away from eliminating a Penguins team that was 15 points better in the standings when the NHL season came to a screeching halt due to the novel coronavirus. A Penguins team that is better than them in nearly every facet of the game.
But that’s the thing about the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s a test of will, and less so one of skill.
“Have to give credit to our players when it’s time to credit them,” said Julien. “They showed a lot of character tonight.”
When you think character, you think of Gallagher.
When we found out he had missed Wednesday’s skate after the team was off on Tuesday, alarm bells were ringing.
We saw Gallagher leave Game 2 momentarily, but he came back almost immediately. That he wasn’t on the ice since the end of it was cause for serious concern.
But it was natural to sense that the 28-year-old assistant captain of the Canadiens would find a way to grit through whatever was ailing him.
Because that’s just who Brendan Gallagher is. It’s who he’s always been.
“This is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Any chance you get to be in the lineup you’re going to… as long as you can help the team, you’re going to be out there,” Gallagher said. “And I would never put myself in a situation where I’m going to hurt the team. Hopefully I was able to contribute tonight and, going forward, it’s the same thing for everyone that puts on that sweater. Everyone’s going to be going through different things and you’ve just got to be willing to do your job. As a team I thought everyone did that tonight.”
And what about the coach, who seemingly pushed every right button?
Julien said on Tuesday that it’s not about Xs and Os, but he had some major adjustments to make to help the Canadiens break through.
Julien plugged Evans in and pulled Jordan Weal out, he settled on line changes he would make if the game fell out of their favour and he made them as soon as it did. He put his faith in Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the 20-year-old kid who’s confidence jumped several notches with goals in each of the first two games, elevating him to a bigger role next to Drouin and Joel Armia.
Julien also pushed Phillip Danault into a power play role shortly after that and that decision stimulated something on the man-advantage that hadn’t previously been there.
The Canadiens seized momentum and Byron scored on the very next shift.
Julien’s decisions to keep the Canadiens rolling at 5-on-5 paid dividends, with Nick Suzuki joining Tomas Tatar and Gallagher, with Danault joining Byron and Artturi Lehkonen on a potent checking line, and with Drouin double shifting in Evans’s vacant spot next to Max Domi and Dale Weise.
The sharpest call the coach made came with just over two minutes left, with the Penguins on a power play and coming out of a timeout. They tried to pull goaltender Matt Murray for an extra attacker after they had already sent out their personnel and Julien had countered with his penalty killers.
The Canadiens had home-ice advantage and the rights to the last change.
“I called the referee and said, ‘They can’t make that change after you put your arm up and we make our change,’” Julien explained. “I brought it to their attention and that’s what happened.”
It helped disrupt the Penguins at a most critical juncture of the game.
The Canadiens did the rest of the heavy lifting.
They had the will in this game and that kept them in it. They showed great determination in shutting things down after Jeff Petry scored the winner—and from a terrible angle on Murray—at 5:33 of the third period. They killed off that penalty with 3:32 remaining, and they kept Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out of the goal column.
Now the Canadiens are suddenly in the driver’s seat.
The coach already knows what he wants to see from them.
“You’re playing a team that knows exactly what to do to get back into a series, and we’re aware of that,” said Julien. “So we need to be playing our best game come Game 4 here.”