Yet again, the Montreal Canadiens are in a David versus Goliath series.
After knocking off the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets, the Canadiens are set for their latest impossible task: toppling the mighty Vegas Golden Knights, who are fresh off four straight wins against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche.
The Canadiens would like to remind everyone that they’ve won seven straight games. And while this series might look like a mismatch on paper, you don’t have to look too far back to see an example of a team that plays a similar style to Montreal that was able to frustrate the Golden Knights. Here are three keys to this series that will likely go a long way in determining its outcome.
The Canadiens and Golden Knights are excellent forechecking teams and have frustrated their opponents this season by pressuring them in their defensive zone. Montreal led the NHL in scoring chances created off the forecheck in the regular season. Artturi Lehkonen’s goal in Game 4 against the Jets was a perfect example of the Canadiens pressuring their opponent into a mistake, then winning a battle in front of the net to produce a goal.
The Golden Knights are well known for their ability to disrupt breakouts and swarm opposing defencemen. Look no further than the go-ahead goal they scored in Game 6 by relentlessly pressuring the Avalanche into multiple turnovers.
The team that can execute its breakouts the cleanest in this series is going to drastically improve its chances of winning games. The Canadiens have the best success rate of the four remaining teams in terms of breaking pucks out of the defensive zone at even strength, doing so successfully 63 per cent of the time. The Golden Knights are right behind them at 62 per cent.
Keep an eye on how effective each team is in this area early in Game 1 as both will no doubt have a plan in place to get pucks behind opposing defencemen and force them into quick decisions and mistakes.
A big part of the Canadiens' playoff success has come thanks to how well they have played in front of the net at both ends of the ice. Montreal should be able to win the net-front battle in this series as well, and it can look to the Minnesota Wild for inspiration on how to frustrate the Golden Knights in this area.
Minnesota pushed Vegas to seven games in the opening round in large part because it was the better team around the net both offensively and defensively. The Wild outshot the Golden Knights from the net-front, inner-slot area 36-33 in the series. Minnesota also did an excellent job creating second chance scoring opportunities, finishing with a 16-8 advantage in rebound scoring chances.
The Canadiens are a shot-volume team that throws a ton of pucks at the net. Montreal is averaging more inner slot shots and rebound chances per game than Vegas in the post-season and should be able to create some good looks around the net on Marc-Andre Fleury. The Golden Knights have allowed 28 rebound scoring chances, more than any playoff team, so you can bet this will be a focus for the Canadiens.
Of Montreal’s 28 goals scored in the playoffs, 19 have come from the inner slot. In contrast, Vegas relies less on net-front scoring as only 17 of its 40 goals have come from this area. There aren’t many places where the Canadiens appear to have an advantage over the Golden Knights in this series, but winning the net-front battle at both ends of the ice should be a realistic goal.
Will that be enough to make a difference in this series? Ultimately, it was not for the Wild, but they were able to make it a lot closer than most expected and this is a recipe the Canadiens should be looking to emulate.
Phillip Danault finished inside the top-10 in Selke Trophy voting in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Mark Stone is a Selke Trophy finalist this season. Both players are elite defensive forwards who have shut down some of the most prolific offensive players in the league during the playoffs.
In 170:41 of 5-on-5 ice-time, Danault has been on the ice for four goals against. In 196:06, Stone has been on the ice for six goals against. Both players have active defensive sticks. Stone is one of the best in the game at stripping opponents of the puck, while Danault uses body position to angle opponents off the puck and force a change of possession. Different styles, but both extremely effective.
What’s most impressive is that both players have predominantly been used against the opposition's top lines. In the Canadiens' opening-round series against the Maple Leafs, Danault’s line held Auston Matthews’ line to just one five-on-five goal in seven games. Against the Jets' top line, Danault was not on the ice for a single goal against.
As for Stone, the job he did against Nathan MacKinnon in the second round was nothing short of remarkable. Stone and linemates Max Pacioretty and Chandler Stephenson heavily outshot and out-chanced Colorado’s top line of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen. In their head-to-head minutes, the Stephenson Line outshot the MacKinnon line 20-7, including an 11-1 shot advantage from the slot. Rush chances were 6-0 for Vegas.
The Canadiens don’t have a loaded-up scoring line, instead relying on the depth of their forward group to produce offence. Danault is Montreal’s top centre and has just two assists in 11 playoff games. However, his value can not be seen solely in what he produces offensively. If he can play his opposition even in this series it will be a major win for the Canadiens. As for Stone, not only is he elite defensively, he is an offensive weapon as well.
With the first two games in Las Vegas, the Golden Knights will be able to match lines as they see fit, but when the series shifts to Montreal, expect the Canadiens to match Danault against Stone as much as possible.
With a packed house for Game 1 in one of the loudest buildings in the league, expect the Golden Knights to apply a ton of pressure off the puck right from the opening fac-eoff. The Canadiens will have to execute their breakouts cleanly to avoid the type of defensive zone turnovers Vegas feasts on.
Despite their underdog status, the path to victory is a straightforward one for the Canadiens: Weather the storm early, manage the puck, clog up the neutral zone, and win the net-front battle. All of this will be easier said than done against this Golden Knights team, but a path to victory is there.
And while it may appear to be a David versus Goliath match-up on paper, Canadiens fans can take solace in the meaning and outcome of that biblical tale: An underestimated competitor toppling a seemingly overpowering opponent by exploiting his greatest weaknesses.