MONTREAL—The Montreal Canadiens were without their coach and without their legs—ripe for the picking for a Vegas Golden Knights team that said they were treating this trip back to a bubbled existence as business—but they did not lay down.
Just like Nick Suzuki, who refused to lay down after Brayden McNabb pasted him with an open-ice hit that sent him careening to the ice in a heap. Just like Carey Price didn’t lay down after teammate Eric Staal put the puck on a platter for Golden Knights forward Nicolas Roy to open the scoring.
The Montreal goaltender had made 29 saves on 30 shots when Alex Pietrangelo took advantage of a rush chance early in the third period and broke a 1-1 tie with a shot that beat him low on the blocker side. Price shrugged it off and attacked every other shot that came his way like a man possessed.
To borrow a line from Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon, who pulled this one out when Marc-Andre Fleury came up with this save in his team’s Game 6 win over the Colorado Avalanche: When Price made that sprawling toe-stop on Alex Tuch with just over 15 minutes remaining in the third period, we didn’t write “nice save” in our notebook, we wrote “game-saver.”
Josh Anderson tied the game on a gaffe by Fleury with 1:55 remaining in the third period, and he won it on a 2-on-0 break that Jesperi Kotkaniemi sent him and Paul Byron on in the 13th minute of overtime.
They jumped into each other’s arms behind Fleury’s net. What they should’ve done was skate the length of the ice to hoist Price over their heads as if he were the Stanley Cup.
The 33-year-old stopped 43 of 45 shots that came his way and managed to outdo himself in a playoff run that’s seen him turn miracles on a nightly basis.
"It was incredible,” said Anderson after notching Montreal’s fourth overtime win of these playoffs. “Not only to watch him play like that, but for the fans, too. He kept us in the game all game. We wouldn't be sitting here talking about this without him. He made some crucial saves that really kept us in the game and gave us the opportunity to win."
The Canadiens appeared destined for a loss when they gave up the first 12 shots of the game. With coach Dominique Ducharme at home, kept in isolation due to a positive COVID-19 test confirmed late on Friday, Luke Richardson was left to run a bench that seemed short on energy and even shorter on execution.
The Canadiens were smacked around for more than half the game, but with the help of Alex Burrows and Sean Burke, and with Richardson maintaining his cool and Price flaunting his, they prevailed to a 3-2 win and take a 2-1 series lead.
When they got to the room, Ducharme was virtually waiting for them.
"Dom had spoken with the players before the game and quickly after the game,” Richardson said. “The guys, obviously, we're thrilled for him. I'm sure he's had lots on his mind over the course of the day. It's a difficult year for everybody and this is supposed to be a special time for Dom, so we were feeling for him for missing it. We know how much he's put in at the end of the year. It was great to hear his voice and the players really responded obviously tonight for him and, and even after we're very excited for him, to hear his voice and to share that celebration with him. We kept in contact all day on little details and even in between periods, just a few details as we always do, and share our ideas together."
Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those conversations…
Perhaps Ducharme saw what we did on the first shift of the second period and noticed the complexion of the game changing.
When Suzuki took a pass in the neutral zone and was met with the full force of McNabb’s weight, 3,500 fans in attendance simultaneously held their breath. But Suzuki jumped back to his feet and carried Montreal’s best efforts through the rest of the game.
He set up Cole Caufield for a beautiful goal at 3:54 of the second period and drove nearly every offensive thrust Montreal had after finding their legs in the third.
Ever since the fall of 2018, when Suzuki was traded to the Canadiens for Max Pacioretty, who played 10 years in Montreal and served as captain for three, we’ve done nothing but talk about his talent, his vision, his skill and his intelligence.
Even McCrimmon started listing off those attributes when asked before the series to discuss what the Golden Knights gave up in the young man from London, Ont., whom they drafted 13th overall in 2017.
“Nick has great hockey sense, so when you look at those players who have elite-level hockey sense—obviously, our own player, Mark Stone, but Paul Stastny’s career has been based on how intelligent he is—that’s what our scouts saw in (Suzuki),” he started. “I think the other thing with Nick is when you watch him play, the puck really comes off his stick. He can wrist-shot the puck or snap-shot the puck, it really comes off his stick. But it’s also that way when he passes the puck, and those are what I call special hands.”
But what McCrimmon didn’t reference had everything to do with what they may have miscalculated in allowing Suzuki to be in the deal that saw Tomas Tatar and a 2019 second-round pick also traded to Montreal for Pacioretty. He didn’t talk about his heart, nor his character, nor his toughness—the things that have turned the 21-year-old into a playoff performer haunting his former team right now.
“We've learned a lot about him in a couple years we've had him,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber about Suzuki, who has four goals and nine points in these playoffs after scoring four goals and seven points in 10 playoff games a year ago. “He's not shy to physical play, to dig his nose in there. Obviously, he took a big hit, but it felt like it almost fired him up even more, and he came back and kept competing.”
So did Price. So did Anderson. So did Richardson and the coaching staff.
That’s who these Canadiens are. No matter what they’re faced with—and they’ve seen it all over this pandemic season—they find a way to the other side as a group. From a COVID shutdown halfway through, to having to play 25 games over the final 44 days of the season, to all their key players going down with injury as a playoff spot was on the line, to their recently double-vaccinated coach getting pulled out during the Stanley Cup semifinal, to getting run over by the Golden Knights to start Game 3, and having to deal with an officiating crew that frankly embarrassed itself on the NHL’s biggest stage and in front of commissioner Gary Bettman.
“My team is special,” said Canadiens centre Phillip Danault. “I’m so happy to be here and to be able to battle with these guys every night. We give ourselves a chance every night to find our swagger, and it’s nice to see in the playoffs. We’re having fun and everyone is tight. We have a damn good group, and I’m really proud of us.”
The Canadiens have shifted this series and are now two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final because of it, with Game 4 set for Sunday.