In the Montreal Canadiens' Round 1 playoff series, they first came for Toronto's top players and when they were successful in shutting them down, existential questions followed for the Leafs.
Trade Marner? Trade William Nylander? Is Toronto's core group just incapable of rising to the moment and winning a playoff round or two? What is wrong with us?
In Montreal's second-round series against Winnipeg, they came for Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor. That the Jets lost Mark Scheifele to suspension after one game was certainly a blow to the team (just as losing John Tavares in Game 1 was to the Leafs), but they had a strength up front and plenty of weapons to presumably overcome scoring against the North Division's fourth seed (hey, that sounded like the Leafs too).
When those players were shut down, the Jets were left scratching their heads as well: this was their opportunity to get back to the Cup hopefuls they were just a few years ago before roster attrition stripped down their defence. Winnipeg was also left wondering what's wrong with us?
In Round 3, the Montreal Canadiens were finally meeting the team that was going to prove too much to handle. Vegas has been on the cusp each year of their existence and after getting past Colorado in six games, the No. 2 regular season team in the league seemed to have a clear path back to the final. Depth throughout the lineup was a strength and, surely, the league's No. 3 offence would be able to solve Montreal's defence and Carey Price often enough to move past an inferior looking lineup.
Well, maybe not.
Vegas's defence was able to generate, but we all know most NHL goals are scored tight to the net and that forwards are key to unlocking that. Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson were all neutralized against the Habs.
Like Montreal's previous opponents, frustration set in for Vegas. Is the Golden Knights' lack of centre depth a fundamental weakness holding them back (and thus, will they now be after Jack Eichel?), or were they perhaps just getting "goalied" again?
Maybe we need to recalibrate our takeaways on Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas.
Maybe it's not you. Maybe it's Montreal.
TORONTO'S TOP SCORERS
The team that carved through the North Division all season and finished with the league's sixth-best offence seemingly had everything in place for its first playoff series win of the salary cap era. Their offence is their calling card, but Toronto's defence was also much improved and allowed the fifth-fewest shots against per game. They dominated the Habs in the regular season, too, winning seven of their 10 matchups.
Whenever you're facing Price, though, you worry about getting beaten by him alone. And, yes, Price is a major factor to Montreal's success here. But like we saw with Vegas, Toronto's scorers were frustrated by Montreal's defence. The start was decent enough and the Maple Leafs grabbed a 3-1 series lead...
Though Matthews had just the single goal through four games and Marner none, there was every reason to expect that it was just a matter of time. Matthews' shots per game were up from his regular season rate, though his high quality opportunities were down. Marner's shots per game were ever so slightly down, but his high danger opportunities were up. Zach Hyman, the third member of the top line, was getting a high percentage of high quality opportunities. Nylander, meantime, had scored four times and was breaking through in the playoffs.
Then Montreal got into the groove we've seen ever since against the opposition's best weapons.
In three Toronto losses from Games 5-7, Matthews' shot rate fell below his season average, but his high danger rate crept up. That's the Price effect showing itself, the NHL playoff leader in save percentage and high danger save percentage. Marner's shots and shot quality both fell below his season averages and Nylander wasn't having near the same success he was earlier in the series.
The top four offensive weapons up front that combined for five goals in the first four games managed just two in the final three and, as has been discussed ad nauseam, Matthews and Marner just never got going. Leafs fans won't care about any silver lining here, but we'll see that they may have fared the best against Montreal, so should we reconsider how we view the loss?
WINNIPEG'S TOP SCORERS
The Jets series was much different because they never had a hope. While Toronto's top players actually held an advantage in shots and high danger shots throughout their series (even after it went sour), the Jets were always chasing. None of their top four options were on the ice for more high danger chances for than against, and only one had an expected goals for percentage over 40 per cent. By the end of the round, Dubois was so disengaged he had fallen to the fourth line.
Winnipeg had three players score at least 20 goals this season: Ehlers, Connor and Scheifele, who was suspended after Game 1 and missed the rest of the series. Ehlers was getting nearly a shot less per game against Montreal compared to his regular season and the percentage of those that were high quality dropped, too. Connor maintained his regular season shot rate, but his high quality looks were almost non-existent.
Wheeler, fifth in team goal scoring on the year, was the only one to get enough quality looks to think he might breakthrough, but it never happened and was far from enough anyway.
VEGAS'S TOP SCORERS
Not until Game 5 did the Golden Knights get a goal from any of their top forwards, and Pacioretty's marker came in the third period of what was a 3-0 game. Smith's first period equalizer in Game 6 was the only goal of consequence from this group.
Given the stakes, the depth and skill of their opponent and these numbers, you could argue Round 3 was Montreal at its best. All of Vegas's top scoring options had high danger scoring rates lower than their regular season averages and only one averaged more shots (by a very tiny amount).
The Canadiens have done a great job clogging the middle, clearing the front of the net, and forcing shots from the outside. It's a similar formula to what the Islanders have found so successful. But the Golden Knights became far too comfortable allowing the Habs to dictate that.
Three of Vegas's top five shot generators in the series were defencemen, and while the Golden Knights outshot Montreal 193-165 in the series, the Habs had a 71–60 high danger shot advantage.
“I got skunked this series,” Stone said. “That can’t happen. I’m the captain of this team. The leader of this team. I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred.”
The captain will take the brunt of the blame for this after he was shut out entirely (again, the Danault/Price effect), but Marchessault was the highest scoring second-liner for the Golden Knights this season and he managed a solitary secondary assist all series. When any of these five scorers were on the ice, Vegas generated less than 40 per cent of all of the highest-quality shots put on net.
The Canadiens have been lucky at times, sure, but the fact is their team defence has gotten better as the playoffs have gone along and they are a much different team than they were in Games 1-4 against Toronto. They haven't allowed a power-play goal against in 13 games and this all lowers the pressure on an offence that was 17th in the regular season and ranked 14th out of the 16 playoff teams. Two is their magic number: the Habs are 11-0 in games where they scored at least twice in a game. That's it.
The key to that has been keeping the opposition's best off the board, and the reason for that isn't only because Price has stepped up to a world class level. The chances created by the best scorers Montreal has faced have been in decline.
Every series win for Montreal has left those opponents wondering what happened to their stars, why they didn't rise to the occasion or if, perhaps, the cores they have are flawed in some way.
Maybe it wasn't you, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas. Maybe it's just the Habs finding their own way to success.