On verge of Stanley Cup Final, Canadiens remain committed to stifling defence

Sean Reynolds and Eric Engels examine the Canadiens approach to Game 6 against the Golden Knights with the chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993.

BROSSARD, Que -- If you and I saw it, surely the Montreal Canadiens did -- the frustration boiling over for the Vegas Golden Knights, with perennial Selke candidate Mark Stone dogging it on the backcheck after giving away the puck on Cole Caufield’s 3-0 goal, with Jonathan Marchessault doing the same as Nick Suzuki scored the empty-netter, and that shot of Max Pacioretty shaking his head from the bench has been in all the highlight packs.

The Canadiens didn’t need further confirmation they were getting to Vegas in this best-of-seven series that now shifts to the Bell Centre and gives them their first chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final since 1993, but it’s never a bad thing to have it.

Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer was asked about it on Wednesday, after a long flight to Montreal and a chance to thoroughly review Tuesday’s 4-1 loss in Game 5, and he insisted there was nothing more to that frustration than the obvious.

“Any time you’re going to lose, you’re frustrated,” said DeBoer. “We’ve got to win a game. We’ve only won once since Game 1, so that’ll frustrate anybody. I’m not sure we’re a victim to anything. We haven’t won enough, and we’re not used to not winning.”

If only it were that simple.

The Golden Knights aren’t used to having their top-six forwards limited to a single goal between them and barely any chances to score through five games. They’re definitely not used to their power play being disrupted to the point where it’s costing them momentum, never mind quality looks and goals. And with respect to the Minnesota Wild, who played them hard defensively in their first-round seven-game series -- and to the Colorado Avalanche, who forced them to deal with their league-leading speed and skill in Round 2 -- no one has played them quite as the Canadiens have.

“They’re on the puck,” said Golden Knights top centre Chandler Stephenson, who missed Games 2, 3, 4 with an undisclosed injury. “Whether it’s our D-zone, the neutral zone or the O-zone, they always have multiple guys on you or around you. So, they make it tough. I think that we had little spurts last game of kind of breaking that down, but it’s a tough series. They’ve been playing really well.”

It’s what Canadiens coach Luke Richardson believes will be at the heart of a potential Game 6 win on Thursday.

It’s about sticking to that defensive template, gridlocking the middle of the ice and frustrating the Golden Knights.

“You have to just get out there and get the blood flowing early into the game, get yourself going and you become like a machine -- going shift after shift -- and the more you play, the better you feel and good things happen,” Richardson said on Wednesday. “I think the guys are just doing that. They’re playing together, they’re really following the system well, frustrating the other team and we’re backchecking harder than we’re probably attacking right now. That’s a good example; we’re trying to attack hard and, when we don’t have the puck, we’re tracking even harder. And it’s not one or two lines, it’s not one or two players; it’s everybody right now. So, that’s basically the team’s success. We’re really proud of how they’re executing it.”

It got the Canadiens past the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, it helped them mentally and physically break the Winnipeg Jets in a four-game sweep and it has enabled them to limit the Golden Knight to just 10 high-danger scoring chances through the last seven periods of this series, according to naturalstattrick.com.

Maintaining it will be paramount to avoid another trip to Sin City.

“I think the most important thing that you have to do right now is to stay together as a team,” said Richardson. “We're up 3-2, and we know that Vegas is going to come back to Montreal and they've got to win a game. Everyone has to do their job for 60 minutes. We've been in this position before. We're in a great spot right now, but we know that Vegas is going to do everything they can to win. But, I see the leadership in our team, how tight we are, and it's fun to see. That's what you want from a winning team. We've shown that before, and everyone is ready for Game 6.”

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