It’s not that the Montreal Canadiens were beaten in Game 1 of their series against Vegas that is so concerning. It’s who did the beating that makes a Habs fan nervous.
Jonathan Marchessault, zero points. Max Pacioretty, zero points. Mark Stone, zero points. Alex Pietrangelo, zero points. William Karlsson, one assist.
All told, the Vegas Golden Knights’ top five playoff scorers combined for a grand total of one assist in their 4-1 Game 1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. The rest of the Golden Knights survived an early Habs barrage, then methodically took Game 1 over, as the team that is in its third Final Four in four seasons looked very comfortable under the spotlights of what we used to call the Conference Final.
“It’s the identity of our team,” began head coach Pete DeBoer, who got three goals and six points from his blue-line on this night. “We don’t have that one line, like Colorado has, like Edmonton has. We have been the sum of our parts all year.”
In a season where the top heavy teams are all roaming the fairways and greens of their respective cities, the Canadiens and Golden Knights are providing the template for what wins in the 2021 NHL. Depth, size, and goaltending rule the day in June, and it was Marc-Andre Fleury who was the difference between a Canadiens team that had not trailed in 447:08 of playoff hockey, and one that found itself playing from behind.
“When we scored our first goal, the pace felt like it was in our favour,” Vegas winger Reilly Smith said. “They’re a good team playing with the lead. Scoring first is going to be important.”
The Habs are THAT team. The one that can suffocate you through period after period — as long as they have the lead.
Get the lead on Montreal however, and now they have to play an alternative style.
Do they have the horses to score four goals and beat you that way? Sure.
Would they much prefer a 2-1 game? You bet they would.
“Critical,” was how DeBoer described the first goal, a Shea Theodore blast through a screen that left Carey Price chanceless just 9:15 into a game that Montreal had dominated to that point. “We talk in our pre-scout meetings about how they would be more uncomfortable in their structure and their game if they were playing from behind. No one has made them play from behind for a while.
“And how we were playing, it gave us an opportunity to take a deep breath, gather ourselves and find our game. Once we got through the first period, I liked everything about our game.”
So this is the micro inside the macro of Montreal versus Vegas.
Both goalies are immaculate, but on this night it was Price who faced more traffic. It was Price who watched Mattias Janmark tap in a goal off a lucky carom, just eight inches from the goal line. And it was Price who had zero opportunity when Alex Martinez, then Nick Holden, took cross-slot passes that left him too far out of position and unable to make a save.
As coaches would say, Vegas was tougher on Price than the Canadiens were on Fleury. So you can guess which goalie was getting hyped post-game.
“Thankfully Flower was our best player, and gave us a chance to get our legs (in the first period),” DeBoer said. “That’s probably his best asset: when our team isn’t on, when we’re stumbling a little bit trying to find our game, he has the ability to make those big saves and allow us to get some confidence, get our legs.
“There’s no doubt they could have been up one- or two-nothing in the first period.”
This was a somewhat strange series opener.
It was the first two-anthem game we’ve seen all season, and for both teams, the first time they had faced an out-of-division opponent since the 2020 bubble in Edmonton.
It was the classic Habs logo, an Original Six club, skating out into the bedlam that has taken over T-Mobile Arena, home to the NHL’s youngest newborn (until Seattle, of course.).
Montreal showed early that they could play with the Golden Knights, who are heavily favoured.
“Their physicality was as advertised. Price was as advertised,” DeBoer said. “They’re a good hockey team.”
However, on this night, Vegas was better. And deeper, which these days is perhaps the most important element.
“To get deeper and deeper in playoffs, you need scoring from everywhere,” said Holden, a D-man who got into just 17 goal-less regular season games, but has now scored goals in two straight playoff games. “If you can get guys contributing who aren’t your big guns, you’re going to win games.”
Their depth is why Vegas always plays at this time of year. And why the Leafs, the Oilers and Colorado — all darlings of the regular season — are always watching on TV.
“If you are a really good player on our team — Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty — it’s nice not to have that pressure that you have to score or the team’s not going to get one,” summed up DeBoer. “Tonight it was the defence. The other night the fourth line kicked one in. The third line (was very good) tonight.
“That’s what wins this time of year.”