MONTREAL — Jesperi Kotkaniemi was serenaded by real, live people, not canned noise coming out of a speaker. The stick he used to score the overtime goal that will send the Montreal Canadiens back to Toronto for Game 7 against the Maple Leafs was already holstered when he gestured to each section of the Bell Centre and received the sweet sound of jubilation from 2,500 fans in attendance.
It felt like they held their collective breath from about the point T.J. Brodie tied the game 2-2 in the 17th minute of the third period to the second the shot that ended this game left Kotkaniemi’s stick and found its way through Zach Bogosian’s body and around Jack Campbell’s glove. But they made more of a difference than anyone could’ve imagined when it was announced Quebec’s COVID-19 restrictions would ease just enough to enable them to be at a game for the first time since Mar. 10, 2020.
In reality, they had waited since April of 2017, when the Bell Centre had last hosted fans for a Stanley Cup Playoff game, and they wasted no time in having their presence felt.
“We heard them before the game,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber. “Going out for the warmup, I had chills. Honestly, it felt like a lot more than 2,500 people. It was amazing. I can’t imagine what 20,000 people would be like right now, because that was electric.”
It was emotional, too — not only when they were singing for Kotkaniemi instead of filing out of the building, but particularly when they belted out the national anthem accapella in both languages. You could feel every syllable.
God keep our land glorious and free — out of the shackles of the pandemic, with our initial quarantine fading further into the recesses, with this experience a giant leap towards the life we enjoyed before this horrible uninvited guest broke into our homes, locked the doors and barred the windows. It was chilling to the bone as those words came out in beautiful harmony.
And then the hockey game started, and what a hockey game it was.
For 40 minutes, the Canadiens asserted themselves in a way they hadn’t at any other point over the first five games. Take what you saw in the first period of Thursday’s Game 5 — with Montreal scoring the first two goals early on — and it didn’t hold a candle to this.
The Canadiens held a 21-15 edge in shots, they were up 44-30 in attempts, 29-18 in hits, and they had won 55 per cent of the faceoffs through the first 40 minutes. The scoring chances at even-strength read 20-8 Montreal, but the score read 0-0.
“I thought we deserved, really, maybe a little bit more than we got,” said Weber, “and we pushed but we just couldn’t score.”
But they didn’t stop pushing in the third. And then the least likely thing of all happened: the Canadiens finally scored a power-play goal after whiffing on their first 15 opportunities of the series.
Corey Perry, on the doorstep, cleaning up the garbage like he’s done so many times before over his Hall-of-Fame career.
Tyler Toffoli was celebrating his first of the series after Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe unsuccessfully challenged Perry’s goal for goaltender interference, and after Mitch Marner flipped a puck over the glass to give the Canadiens a 5-on-3 for 1:41 or less.
It took 58 seconds of the discombobulated stuff the Canadiens’ power play has been made of, but Nick Suzuki found Toffoli in the slot and the fans rose to their feet and celebrated the 2-0 lead.
It may not have been how he imagined it when he signed a four-year, $17-million contract in October, but it was something Toffoli will never forget.
“I dreamed of scoring in front of 20,000 fans, not 2,500,” he said, “but it was really cool. It was just a great experience. Huge game for us. Obviously, we needed to win, and we all came to play.”
Yes, they did. Whether it was Jake Evans coming off an injury and skating over 23 minutes, or Kotkaniemi, who was scratched in Game 1 and now leads the Canadiens with three goals in five games, everyone contributed.
Carey Price made 41 saves. He made the 11 he faced before his team got a shot in overtime look easy.
The tension in the building — on the ice and in the stands — rose significantly when Jason Spezza got Toronto on the board in the 12th minute of the third period. When Brodie scored 5:14 later, you could hear a pin drop.
But the stress-level hit its crescendo in overtime, right before No. 15 ended the game at the 15:15 mark. There was Price, cool as a cucumber, turning aside Alex Galchenyuk’s wrist shot from 17 feet away like it was nothing.
“He was dialled tonight,” said Weber. “When he’s on and settling things down, I think it helps your group as a whole. He’s that backbone. He just keeps giving you chances.”
This was a game because of the role Weber and partner Ben Chiarot played in it. Weber logged a team-high 37:07 over 36 shifts, and Chiarot played 35:20 over 37.
Jeff Petry played close to 35 minutes and Joel Edmundson close to 29, and the four of them bashed every Maple Leaf in sight.
They haven’t done it alone, but they’ve played a huge role in limiting Rocket Richard Trophy-winner Auston Matthews to just one goal and superstar line mate Marner to none in this series.
They’re an intimidating group.
“I think they’re warriors,” said Kotkaniemi. “They’re doing the mean job. The mean men being tough out there.”
The hits they didn’t throw had as much of an impact.
This game turned when William Nylander, who’s been Toronto’s most dynamic forward, backed into Price and put the Canadiens on the power play at 5:16 of the third period. You couldn’t help but notice he’d lost his sense of where he was on the ice trying to avoid a hit from Chiarot.
Nylander wasn’t the only one ducking them, and that’s something the Maple Leafs will need to address before Game 7.
They’ll also need to figure out why they’ve had two opportunities to end this series with a single shot and have whiffed on them. They need to get to the bottom of why Marner looks like a shell of himself and why Matthews can’t find the right side of the post.
It feels like the pressure of playoff failings past has bitten them, even if Keefe says it hasn’t.
“I’m not worried about that,” said Keefe. “I don’t think pressure is the issue here. It’s just a matter of playing a hockey game where we’ve got to elevate our play.”
The Canadiens feel they can do it, even without their fans behind them in Toronto. They’ve got momentum, a battle-tested and highly-experienced group, with four Stanley Cup winners in their lineup to Toronto’s two.
And they are playing for more opportunities to do their thing in front of fans at the Bell Centre. The type who sing, dance, give you chills and even hold their breath from time to time.