Canadiens keep season alive with desperate Game 5 win over Maple Leafs

Nick Suzuki scored early in overtime on an assist from Cole Caufield to lift the Montreal Canadiens to a 4-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs to force a Game 6.

It was the symphony of the situation, the most fitting song, with lyrics that perfectly encapsulated what was on the line with the puck set to drop in the fourth period of this elimination game.

As Van Halen’s Right Now blared through the speakers at Scotiabank Arena, Kyle Dubas’ Toronto Maple Leafs were a shot away from knocking the Montreal Canadiens out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As the chorus rolled around, the general manager began nodding his head in rhythm with the drumline, and he appeared to be singing along under his mask.

“Right now. Hey! It’s your tomorrow. Right now. Come on, it’s everything.”

The Maple Leafs hadn’t advanced to the second round of the playoffs since 2004, and their best chance to do it was right in front of them.

Down at ice level, Brendan Gallagher and his Canadiens teammates just listened to the music. The words echoed the message their coach, Dominique Ducharme, had just delivered in their dressing room.

“I just said these moments here are moments for gamers,” Duchame later explained.

His team had just blown a 3-0 lead and rendered this a one-shot game for their season, and he stressed what the looming opportunity instead of the blown one.

“You looked around the room,” said Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, “and everybody knew what was at stake.”

Play resumed, a 29-second shift unraveled up and down the ice, and then Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli jumped on for Montreal.

“Right now. Hey! It’s your tomorrow. Right now. Come on, it’s everything.”

The Maple Leafs, leading 3-1 in this series, had control of the play 150 feet away from their own net. Alex Galchenyuk was in possession of the puck. The former Canadien, who had scored three points in Tuesday’s Game 4 win and had set the play that saw Jake Muzzin tie this one 3-3 in the 12th minute of the third period, forced it through a lane Caufield was filling.

Caufield and Suzuki, the Canadiens’ most talented offensive players, took off on a 2-on-0 from their side of centre, with a chance to extend the series and send it back to Montreal, where 2,500 of their fans would have an opportunity to be in attendance at the Bell Centre for the first time since March 10, 2020 if they connected on a goal.

“Right now. Hey! It’s your tomorrow. Right now. Come on, it’s everything.”

They crossed over the offensive blue line with Caufield passing to Suzuki. Suzuki sent it back to Caufield, and Caufield one-touched it right back his way. Fifty-nine seconds into overtime, staring death in the face, Suzuki did one last chest compression on this Canadiens season, ripping the puck into the back of the net with authority.

“We’ve got a ton of leaders — especially that I look up to — and we had a meeting yesterday and guys like Corey (Perry) and (Eric Staal) Staalsy spoke up and said, ‘These opportunities in the playoffs don’t come that often, so you gotta make the most of it,’” Suzuki said.

If you don’t make the most of a 2-on-0 in overtime, you’ve blown the best opportunity you’ll ever get in the playoffs, but 21-year-old Suzuki and 20-year-old Caufield kept their composure.

“Like I said, we got a ton of leaders — (Shea Weber) Weby, (Price) — keeping us calm, and it translated into OT.”

It was Perry and Staal, a pair of Triple Gold Club members, who helped awaken this dormant — near dead — Canadiens offence. Staal with a steady play in the neutral zone, and Perry with a flying forecheck hit on Rasmus Sandin that jarred the puck loose for Joel Armia to score Montreal’s first goal since the second period of Game 3. The shot to the top half of the net came at 5:13 of the first period, just three minutes and five seconds before Armia picked the puck out of a mad scramble in front of Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell and shoveled it into the net to make it 2-0.

The Canadiens wrapped that first period ahead in goals, shots, hits and faceoffs, with confidence restored and a sense of urgency pulsating throughout their room.

“Right now. Hey! It’s your tomorrow. Right now. Come on, it’s everything.”

They prepared for the second period, which had put them at death’s door after four terrible ones prior. With the Maple Leafs spinning the Canadiens around in every middle frame — holding an 8-1 lead in goals, a 108-63 advantage in shot attempts and a 2.5-1 edge in offensive-zone time to generate twice as many scoring chances — this was going to be the ultimate test.

“We talked a lot about it,” said Ducharme.

And then the Canadiens adjusted. Gone were the in-zone reversals, the D-to-D passes that enabled the Maple Leafs to pin the Canadiens down behind their goal line, the hesitations that froze out their own forwards in transition and kept allowing the Maple Leafs to regroup in the neutral zone, and suddenly the pucks started coming out and going towards Campbell’s net.

“Little plays make a big difference in those situations,” said Ducharme. “Making those little plays and piling them up leads to big plays.”

Little plays: a forecheck from Josh Anderson, a quick read and a reaction from Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Big play: a second whack at a loose puck in front of Campbell that leads to goal for Kotkaniemi to give the Canadiens a 3-0 lead in the fifth minute of the second period.

The Maple Leafs had to push back.

“Right now. Hey! It’s your tomorrow. Right now. Come on, it’s everything.”

Less than two minutes after Kotkaniemi’s goal, Zach Hyman just got enough of a loose puck in front of Price to get his team in the game.

The boys in blue had no interest in a trip back to Montreal, and they made that clear a 16-5 shot advantage in the third and two goals from Muzzin to tie it up.

He shot one through four sets of legs to beat Price, who had turned away so many quality chances to that point in the game. And then he tipped home Galchenyuk’s wrister to bring the Canadiens to within an inch of submission.

But the Canadiens managed to collect themselves. They had found some confidence in the way they had played — in their attention to detail, in their assertion of their own game, and in the way their leaders rose to the occasion.

Everyone had to be better. From Jon Merrill, who played a team-low 9:18 to Phillip Danault, who had struggled in Game 2 through Game 4 but made it an extremely difficult night for Toronto’s best players in Game 5.

“I told myself that’s what I’m born for, to be in those big moments,” Danault said after pulling back 66 per cent of his faceoffs and doing everything possible to keep Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Hyman in check through his 19:07 on the ice.

“That’s what I work hard for every summer,” Danault continued. “All year, you’re battling with your life on the ice, and you lay it all (on the line).”

He also said the Canadiens can play better, and that he was confident they would with this series shifting back to Montreal.

“Obviously, you want to recreate those moments, which we have another chance to do next game,” Danault said.

They will play to the music their fans make in this reunion that was over a year in the making. A little Van Halen for the encore might be in order, too.

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