LAS VEGAS — The uphill climb facing the Montreal Canadiens just got a little steeper.
The only Canadian team with a shot at the Stanley Cup gave up a 4-1 loss Monday in their first of a best-of-seven semifinal battle against the top-seeded Vegas Golden Knights.
It was Montreal’s first game outside of Canada in 2021, and it came before a boisterous crowd of 17,884 — a far cry from what COVID-19 restrictions have allowed north of the border all season.
Shea Theodore opened the scoring with his first goal of the playoffs midway through the first period and added a helper early in the second. Alec Martinez, Mattias Janmark and Nick Holden also scored for the home team, and Reilly Smith contributed a pair of assists.
Montreal’s Cole Caufield buried the lone tally for the Habs on a power play in the second frame.
The Knights controlled Monday’s game almost from the opening faceoff, notching their first with a fearsome Theodore one-timer from the point that beat a sliding Carey Price on the stick side.
They made it 2-0 early in the second when Theodore faked a shot and shovelled it over to Martinez, whose faceoff-circle blast on a near-empty net left Price diving across the crease in vain.
Price got a measure of revenge moments later when Max Pacioretty fed Mark Stone on a sudden two-on-one rush, only to be robbed by a spectacular glove save.
Montreal spoiled Fleury’s shutout hopes with the man advantage at the 12:05 mark when Caufield buried a juicy rebound off a Tyler Toffoli shot for his first goal of the playoffs.
But the momentum was short-lived: less than a minute later, Janmark made it 3-1 from the edge of the crease by tipping a drifting shot from Alex Tuch past Price’s outstretched pad.
Knights defender Holden made it 4-1 midway through the third before Price headed for the bench, a four-minute stretch of six-on-five hockey that gave Fleury a chance to show off for the fans.
The series promises to be a chippy one — nearly every scoring rush ended in a scrum behind or beside the net, frequently with frustrated Habs forward Brendan Gallagher at the centre of it.
Even so, the first frame produced only one power play per side — Montreal failed to capitalize on an early high-sticking call against Vegas centre Jonathan Marchesseault, then fought off the man advantage after Phillip Daneault hauled down Alex Pietrangelo deep in Montreal territory.
The penalty situation changed quickly in the second.
The second period was only seven seconds old when Habs defender Ben Chiarot’s blooper clearing attempt caught the netting above the glass behind Fleury, a delay-of-game call.
Montreal was 1-for-3 with the man advantage and Vegas went 0-for-4.
The top-ranked Golden Knights won an NHL-best 40 games in the shortened 56-game regular season and tied Colorado for the highest point total in the league — 23 points more than Montreal in the standings.
But the Canadiens have been the underdogs twice already this post-season.
They were not expected to beat the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round, nor were they favoured to overcome the third-place Winnipeg Jets in the second round. The team silenced critics in both cases and came into Vegas riding a seven-game win streak that included a sweep of the Jets.
It’s not all familiar territory for the Habs, though.
The Montreal-Vegas series is the first cross-border matchup in the NHL this season, made possible by a federal exemption allowing teams to bypass 14-day quarantine requirements.
Monday’s capacity crowd was a stark contrast from the empty Canadian arenas during the regular season and even the 2,500 fans permitted inside Montreal’s Bell Centre during the playoffs