United Canadiens have found winning recipe to advance through playoffs

Montreal Canadiens' Phillip Danault (24) and Tyler Toffoli (73) celebrate with goaltender Carey Price (31) after defeating the Winnipeg Jets in NHL playoff action in Winnipeg on Friday, June 4, 2021. (John Woods/CP)

This was no Picasso. It wasn’t even a Banksy.

No, this was a hockey game made of hockey parlance—an ugly, grind-it-out effort with all the cliché markings of a perfect road performance, with the Montreal Canadiens earning a 1-0 lead and hanging onto it until the final buzzer sounded. They withstood the opening push from the Winnipeg Jets, made hard plays out of their zone, got pucks in deep, got the forecheck going, got the cycle going, got traffic, were patient, took advantage of their best opportunity, made sure their goalie wasn’t forced to make the second and third stops, and they’re going home to their fans at the Bell Centre with a 2-0 series lead because of it.

Boring stuff, really, but also the stuff this five-game winning streak is made of.

The Canadiens have found their recipe and improved on it since Game 5 of their comeback series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1, and it can carry them further than they’ve been in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2014.

And yes, Carey Price’s magnificence from the start is the biggest reason. He was magnificent in this game, too—especially at the end, in facing eight shots in the final 3:20 to lock in the eighth shutout of his post-season career.

But he’s one of 19 right now.

The Canadiens, a group cobbled together with seven new faces added before the beginning of the season and three more coming ahead of the NHL’s April 12 trade deadline, followed by Cole Caufield who debuted on April 26, are finally united. They’re talking the same, walking the same, playing the same; connected all over the ice, just like coach Dominique Ducharme wants them to be.

He’s not satisfied, but there’s no greater satisfaction as a coach than when your players take over. It may not appear beautiful to you or me, but it’s a true piece of art to Ducharme.

“That’s where you want to bring your group,” he said. “I think we have a great group of guys. I’ve said it since Day 1. They’ve bought in in what we want to do since (he took over for Claude Julien as head coach and Alex Burrows replaced Kirk Muller as an associate on Feb. 24.)

“Never doubted that group with their intentions. When you see the confidence growing like this in the way they’re playing together and playing for each other, it’s huge. When we talk about partnership (between the coaching staff and the players), that’s where it shows.”

It shows on the breakout, where the Canadiens were discombobulated from February to early May but are now as efficient in that department as they are in any other. It shows on the penalty kill, which is the best one still standing in these playoffs despite being a bottom-tier one all season.

If the Canadiens haven’t trailed for a single second over their longest winning streak of 2021, it’s because it has showed in every single thing they’ve been doing of late.

“Our game is like a puzzle,” said Ducharme, “you cannot be great at one thing and bad at the other thing, usually, when it all comes together.”

You can force a turnover—the Canadiens pushed the Jets into giving away 12 pucks and they took four right off their sticks in Game 2—but that’s not worth as much if you don’t effectively transition the puck the other way. You can chip a puck past a defenceman, but without a forechecker to race for it, you’re just giving it up.

It’s simple. It’s even mundane.

But it’s also effective hockey that wins at this time of year—especially when everyone on your side is convinced it’s the way to play.

“We've just got to keep playing the way we're playing,” said the game’s only goal-scorer, Tyler Toffoli, earlier on Friday. “Executing. Just playing the tight playoff hockey that we're good at.”

It can be infuriating for the opponent, and that’s been evident since the Canadiens found their rhythm against Toronto. They smothered and flustered Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and then came to Winnipeg and got under Mark Scheifele’s skin.

Without Scheifele, who was suspended four games for charging—and concussing—Jake Evans with 57 seconds remaining in Montreal’s 5-3 win in Game 1, Winnipeg’s best offensive players were completely flummoxed in Game 2. Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers combined for three high-danger shot attempts between them—and two of them came in the final minutes of play.

They could barely squeeze their way to the inside of the ice because Montreal’s Ben Chiarot, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson bounced them out.

“They've got four big bodies back there on the blue line that make it tough to get to the net,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice, “but that's the place we've got to get to.”

Easier said than done.

In Game 1, it was Petry and Edmundson who stepped in the way. In Game 2, Weber skated a team-leading 24:50 while Chiarot skated through everyone and everything, as he’s been doing since these playoffs began.

Price said the former Jet is “playing some quality minutes for us and playing like a first-pairing D-man.”

“He’s a solid man out there and he’s moving the puck well,” he continued. “He’s composed with it, and he lays the boom down.”

It wouldn’t be as effective if Phillip Danault wasn’t blanketing every player he’s matched up against in front of the defence, or if Artturi Lehkonen wasn’t capable of picking up exactly where Evans left off despite missing the five games prior with a concussion.

The Canadiens are getting contributions from everywhere—from Toffoli’s third of the playoffs coming shorthanded to Eric Staal, Corey Perry and Joel Armia working in perfect harmony as a physical, forechecking, cycle-you-to-death fourth line; from Danault dominating one end to youngsters Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi coming through at the other.

Even defencemen Erik Gustafsson and Brett Kulak, who are playing limited minutes behind the big four, are doing their part.

“Everyone does his job well,” said Danault, “and that’s how we get rewarded.”

Everyone taking the pain that comes with it, and dishing it out, too, are among the main ingredients of Montreal’s recipe thus far.

“I think it’s a common theme with all the teams that are still in the playoffs,” said Chiarot. “They all defend hard, they all play a hard game—Islanders, Boston, Vegas, Colorado. They all play a hard style. It’s fast, it doesn’t give you much time with the puck, it’s defending hard, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”

The challenge for the Canadiens will be continuing to do it come Sunday’s Game 3.

“It’s just sticking to what’s working,” said Price. “It’s kind of a funny thing that way—you heat up at the right time. But obviously, we have a lot of work to do still.”

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