Canadiens take commanding series lead by continuing to frustrate Jets

Joel Armia scored two goals and added an assist, Carey Price was solid once again and the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Winnipeg Jets 5-1 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.

MONTREAL -- If George Foreman were watching this Montreal Canadiens season unfold, he’d have been flashing back to the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.

The Canadiens, rope-a-dopers, a team that backed into the playoffs on a five-game losing streak, are now a team on a six-game burner, one win away from the Stanley Cup semifinals. They were supposed to get trampled by the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1, and they nearly were before bouncing off the mat and punching their way to a devastating knockout in Game 7.

They haven’t just won six straight games; they’ve led from wire to wire. And for three straight wins against the Winnipeg Jets in Round 2, the Canadiens have looked like Muhammad Ali in his prime -- untouchable.

If Game 3 was a harbinger, the Canadiens will be cooling their heels for a bit while the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche duke it out for who gets to play them next. They came out with eight of the first 10 shots of this must-win for the Jets, got to Connor Hellebuyck in the fifth minute of the first period and never looked back.

The goal, scored by Corey Perry, came after two straight minutes of total dominance in the offensive zone. The Canadiens followed it up with four more and won the game 5-1.

The Jets, for large portions of it, looked like Foreman -- swinging wildly and missing, tiring themselves out before falling on their faces. They were frustrated, and they had no answer to what the Canadiens were doing to them.

They haven’t had an answer since this series started.

“Right now they are an extremely confident team in what they’re doing, and they’re getting results from that,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “We are on the other side of the pendulum right now. We don’t have a ton of confidence and we are kind of scratching and clawing to find it.”

They’re completely failing -- especially in front of both nets, the areas Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher referred to as “where the fun is had.”

His team has been there in front of Hellebuyck, having the time of its life. Artturi Lehkonen was right there to bang home Montreal’s second goal, and you couldn’t even tell he was the last Canadien to put his stick on the puck until the replay ran, because Gallagher and Phillip Danault were right there with him whacking away.

At the other end, what the Canadiens have in front of Carey Price’s net is a no-fun zone, patrolled by hulking defencemen Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson, who have boxed Winnipeg’s best players out completely. Even when Petry went down late in the second period with an injury to his right hand, nothing changed.

Brett Kulak and Erik Gustafsson filled his spot, and the Canadiens kept everything to the outside. As a whole, they may have allowed 27 shots to get to Price in Game 3, and one of the few that came from inside snuck in -- a tip from Adam Lowry right by the goalmouth -- but they didn’t allow more than one rebound opportunity all game.

That chance came off Kyle Connor’s stick, with just over 11 minutes remaining in the third period and with the Jets already trailing 4-1. Yikes.

The Canadiens have stifled the Jets in the scoring areas, but in every other area as well. They’re getting contributions from every part of their lineup, with top offensive centre Nick Suzuki saying it was their fourth line setting the tone at both ends in Game 3.

"On the board they're listed fourth, but they're definitely not a fourth line,” said Gallagher. “We just roll everyone, and they're playing big boy hockey. They've been able to put together such long cycle shifts for us, they work the puck down low, they all use their size to their advantage. They know what they are as a line and they just play to their strengths. Playoff hockey has certainly brought the best out of the three of them. They've been awesome for us."

Yes, Perry (one goal), Eric Staal (one assist) and Joel Armia (two goals, including one magnificent one shorthanded to make it 3-0) have been otherworldly.

Two of the three looked like they were in another world for long stretches of the regular season, and so did most of the Canadiens -- losing 14 of their last 21 games and appearing as though they had nothing left in the tank over the final 44 days of it. They started the playoffs looking like they were going to bow out meekly, but now they’re on the verge of establishing themselves as one of the final four teams standing.

And it’s not as if belief will be hard to conjure the Canadiens could do it in Game 4 on Monday.

“The team’s engagement is at 100 per cent,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “It’s something we felt we had at times over the first four games against Toronto, but we had to take it to another level and everyone needed to bring it consistently. That’s what we’ve done of late.”

It’s put them in a great position to attack the opportunity in front of them.

“We know what it’s like to have our backs against the wall,” said Ducharme. “We learned from the first round, and that has to show again tomorrow. We have to keep playing the way we’re playing, but also manage that mental challenge as well.”

How will the Jets manage the mental challenge?

They beat the Edmonton Oilers in a four-game sweep in Round 1, but their season is suddenly hanging by a thread.

They weren’t nearly good enough in Game 1, and they haven’t been able to generate much of anything -- outside of Lowry’s goal and a couple of crossbars hit -- without Mark Scheifele, who was suspended four games for charging and concussing Jake Evans. They’re in tough to change that.

“You go into an NHL room after it loses a game, 10 minutes after, there's not going to be a lot of fun in there right now,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “So, we deal with it that way. We don't want to turn the music on, throw a party here. We just lost another hockey game and we got our backs against the wall.

"But we start working on tomorrow right after this game. So, we do our media, and then we start to recover and get better.”

The Canadiens are doing the same, though, and they appear prepared to deliver a win few would’ve expected before this all got started.

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