If one goaltender were to swing this series, it had to be the man whose neck doubles as a hanger for gold medals. The guy with four major NHL trophies on his shelf. He of 70-plus playoff games on his résumé.
Make no mistake, Carey Price has been phenomenal through the first three bouts of Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens. Price has faced more shots — and more difficult shots — than his counterpart in blue, and he’s made the type of 10-bell stops that have earned him retweetable gifs and that sterling reputation from his peers as the best in the biz.
Just ask Jason Spezza:
And yet, Jack Campbell — a playoff newbie and career backup in the NHL until, oh, about two months ago — has been dialled in to duel the future Hall of Famer.
Campbell, too, can be a difference maker.
“Their goaltender’s playing well,” Price said. “We’re going to have to make it more difficult for him.”
Understanding Campbell hasn’t faced the same dynamic arsenal of shooters chugging down toward Price’s net, and that Dominque Ducharme has done him a favour by scratching Cole Caufield twice, the Leafs No. 1 has been stellar.
Through three nights, Campbell has turned away 78 saves of 82 shots for a .951 save percentage, 1.35 goals-against average, and a 2-1 series edge.
He’s also been the backbone of a suddenly stingy penalty kill that is enjoying a 21-for-21 shutdown run and muting every one of Montreal’s 5-on-4 advantages.
After getting beat clean far-side blocker off the rush Monday night by Nick Suzuki midway through a pivotal Game 3, Campbell closed up shop faster than you can say “Ontario.”
Campbell nimbly switched gears from the relatively light work of periods 1 and 2 (14 shots total) to a frenetic and desperate Habs push in the third, turning away all 15 pucks, including a Tomas Tatar attempt at the goal line.
His glove caught everything. Rebounds were scarce to nonexistent. And he battled through the desperate mayhem.
“It was a tough, tough period. They're coming at us real hard. I'd like to see us relax and make a few more plays so we can settle the game down, but it's a very important game. It's a very important period,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.
“I thought our guys battled hard, and of course our goalie was our best player.”
Wayne Simmonds, too, crowned “Soupy” the game’s first star, saying the skaters owe him one.
Campbell, always a bundle of stick-taps and wink-smiles, gave props to his shot-blockers and said simply: “It was a fun third period.”
Game-winning goal-scorer Morgan Rielly went out of his way to direct the spotlight in Campbell’s direction.
“Those close games, that pressure in the playoffs when you are coming down the homestretch can be nerve-racking. We know what's at stake,” Rielly said post-win.
“All the credit in the world has to go to Jack Campbell. He was an absolute warrior for us. He was competing all night, and I think down the homestretch he was outstanding.
“He's been there for us all year, and tonight was no different. He’s an absolute stud.”
In a post-season rarity, the puck drop for Game 4 will occur roughly 22 hours after Game 3’s final buzzer. Campbell has been nursing a lower-body ailment and frequently takes practices off for maintenance.
Montreal will bank on its $10.5-million stud. And while Keefe waited to gauge Campbell’s energy and health Tuesday morning before making a commitment, the coach called going back-to-back with Campbell an "easy decision."
Neither Price nor Campbell started both halves of a back-to-back all year. But the playoffs are a more demanding beast.
“During the regular season, I can understand why maybe you don't do that as much, but in playoff hockey, whoever Coach puts in will be ready to go,” Campbell said.
“It’s a challenge. It's playoff hockey. It's the best time of the year. The skaters have to do it every time, so nothing to complain about. It's just fun to get out there.”
By now, most Toronto fans understand that Campbell is the world’s nicest teammate. They’ve heard tales of his hard work and long road to the starter’s crease. They saw his name pop up as the club’s 2021 Masterton nominee, an acknowledgment of his dogged perseverance since being a first-round pick 11 years and two organizations ago.
And once he trumped Price’s record for most consecutive wins to start a season this year, they recognized his talent.
“But then adversity hit. We started to lose games as a team. He started to put together back-to-back starts that he wasn’t happy with,” Keefe said, thinking back to Campbell’s mid-April swoon.
The goalie criticized himself publicly and, no doubt, privately. The ability to flush and forgive has never come naturally for Campbell, his own harshest critic. But that ability is critical for playoff success.
Since then, Campbell has been as kind to himself as his play has been to the Leafs.
“Our confidence as a team has really grown since then. His ability to handle that adversity was just another layer to him when you bring in the personality, the energy, the positivity that he has, the work ethic. Those are things that anybody in hockey who has been around Jack Campbell speaks to. But he dealt with some adversity this season, met it head on, and turned the corner. That was a big moment for him,” Keefe explained.
“The reality is, when you are playing for the Leafs in the Canadian division, the limelight is quite bright all season long. He has shown the ability to shine within that, step up, and perform at a high level.”
So far, so stud.
Or, as Campbell says: “I'm just trying to focus on the next shot and trying not to mess up for the boys.”