We expected the Vegas Golden Knights to be here. They've done nothing but contend in each year of their existence.
The Golden Knights are coming off a high-tempo series against Colorado in which they dropped the first two games and then won four in a row. There's a whole lot of momentum on their side, experience to draw from and the confidence of being such a clear favourite. But there's still work to do. On paper this could be the best team Vegas has put on the ice yet and odds indicate the overwhelming opinion is the Golden Knights will reach their second Cup final. But we saw during that first run how quickly the bottom can fall out.
Montreal is not as polished as the Washington Capitals team that dispatched Vegas in five in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, but they play a defensive style that has frustrated and eliminated two other favourites already in this post-season. If defence wins championships, Montreal should feel good about its opportunity here. The Golden Knights will play at a pace and with depth that the Canadiens haven't seen in this run yet, but they will endeavour to control the speed -- if Montreal has its way this series will look nothing like the Vegas-Colorado thriller we just enjoyed.
Vegas is looking for its first Cup; Montreal is Canada's last hope to win its first since 1993. These Habs have drawn comparisons to past upstart champions Los Angeles (2012) and even the '93 Canadiens team. Carey Price is on a level we've seen so many times before from goalies who will their teams through Cinderella runs.
Here's how the teams match up.
Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
Montreal: 49.59 CF% (9th), 50.0 GF% (8th), .943 SV% (3rd), 6.02 SH% (12th)
Vegas: 54.32 CF% (5th), 58.49 GF% (1st), .920 SV% (11th), 9.04 SH% (2nd)
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
Montreal: 18.8 PP% (9th), 90.3 PK% (1st), 2.55 GF/G (11th), 2.18 GA/G (2nd)
Vegas: 14.3 PP% (14th), 71.4 PK% (12th), 3.08 GF/G (4th), 2.38 GA/G (4th)
Montreal: "Built for the playoffs" is a common refrain around the Canadiens now that we've seen them overcome a 3-1 series deficit to beat Toronto and then sweep aside the Winnipeg Jets. They've been compared by some to the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, an eighth-seed afterthought that found post-season success through great goaltending and suffocating team defence, and the 1993 Habs, who weren't seen as a contender but wound up winning the Cup (and that team still stands as the last Canadian outfit to win it).
Where this Habs team found early-season success through a high-octane offence, they've found a different way to reel off wins in the post-season after backing into the fourth seed in the North Division. Carey Price gets the lion's share of credit for backstopping Montreal to two upsets -- for all the talk about how his regular season play hasn't been at "world's best goalie" level for some time, Price has been over a .930 save percentage in three straight post-seasons now. He is their top Conn Smythe candidate halfway through the playoffs.
But Montreal's stifling team defence deserves a lot of credit here, too. They've choked passing lanes, frustrated the Maple Leafs and Jets with stick checks and interceptions and shut down two teams whose primary strength was an ability to create offence. In turn, this great defensive play fuels how the Habs prefer to generate their offence: off the rush. It wasn't something that was always successful in the regular season, but in the playoffs it's been a defining factor as to why the Canadiens are now eight wins from the Stanley Cup.
Vegas: Star power at the top from four years of aggressive pursuits in trade and free agency, and depth throughout thanks to a stellar expansion draft that is still paying dividends. That's how the Golden Knights have maintained their place as one of the NHL's top teams since joining the league in 2017-18.
And this may be their best team iced yet.
For the third time in four years, the Golden Knights have reached the third round of the playoffs. They are a high-event team that will rush you up and down the ice, forcing quick pace while forechecking you into oblivion. But they also boast a stellar blue line that keeps opponent's options to a minimum and puts their two excellent goalies in the best position to succeed. Alex Pietrangelo, last summer's big off-season signing, didn't have his best regular season this year (though it wasn't a bad one) but he is coming off his best stretch of games as a Golden Knight yet in their series against Colorado.
Vegas can come at you in waves and though they've had trouble scoring in the playoffs at times, they certainly have the make up to get through those stretches. Vegas had the third-best offence in the regular season and it comes in streaks -- for instance, the Golden Knights scored just six times in their first three games against Colorado, then scored 14 times in the last three games.
The Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson line is familiar to this team since its inception, but it now plays second fiddle to Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson. On Line 3, Alex Tuch is a danger to score at any time and the fourth line is rough, tough and has scored a few key goals in this run already.
They'll rush you, they'll slow you down on defence and they're fun as heck to watch, but the backbone of the team is 36-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, positioned as the face of the franchise when he was first added to the team four years ago. Fleury actually lost his starting job to Robin Lehner last season, but won it back with a Vezina finalist performance in 2021 that has him on the Team Canada Olympics radar again. His 1.91 playoff GAA is the best of any goalie to advance past Round 1.
Montreal: Phillip Danault
Yet again, the Habs are serious underdogs in this series, maybe even more so than they were against Toronto or Winnipeg. If this series turns into a track meet, Montreal may not have the offence to keep up. They've pulled off two upsets already thanks to a dedication to neat team defence that has slowed down neutral zone attacks, frustrated plays at the blue line and been excellent at limiting passing lanes. Danault epitomizes what's worked so well for Montreal.
Danault and his line have been tasked with shutting down their opponents' biggest offensive threats, from Auston Matthews' line in Round 1 to Blake Wheeler's line in Round 2, and he's come out on top of both assignments so far. Vegas might have a little more depth to pull from, but Danault will once again line up against a No. 1 line and if he is able to come out on top or keep the scoring difference close to even again, it'll put the Habs in position for another upset. If he loses that battle, Montreal is going to be in very tough.
Vegas: Max Pacioretty
He'll be one of the biggest storylines coming into the series from the Montreal side of things. Pacioretty was a former captain of this team, traded in a deal that included Nick Suzuki three years ago. In truth, the trade has worked out for both sides -- Montreal got younger and helped their situation at centre, while Vegas got a reliable goal scorer who was on one of the best paces of his career at 32-years-old.
Pacioretty missed almost the entirety of their Round 1 series against Minnesota, when Vegas had bouts of going cold on offence. He returned against Colorado, scored three times in six games and had two game-winners. His line is the likely target of Danault's line so it'll be a matchup to watch -- if Vegas wins it, they would wrap this series relatively quickly -- unless Carey Price absolutely robs them. If Montreal wins the matchup, they could extend the series and maybe even win four games.