Well… What do we have here?
That fourth-place team from the ultra-weak Canadian Division that was going to get swept by the Vegas Golden Knights?
Ya, they’re heading home with home-ice advantage after winning Game 2 by a 3-2 score, proving to the hockey world that, yes, the Montreal Canadiens can play with the Golden Knights.
“Those people who said we were going to sweep,” dismissed Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer, “are the same people who said that Colorado was going to sweep us.”
One of hockey’s more accurate quips has always been, “A series doesn’t start until the road team wins a game.”
On Tuesday evening in Las Vegas this series got whittled down to a best-of-five, with the Canadiens stealing home-ice advantage. All of which doesn’t surprise the veteran Golden Knights coach.
“You don’t get to the Final Four without knowing that this is going to be a battle,” DeBoer said post-game. “If it takes overtime and seven games, then it takes overtime and seven games. You just want to make sure you move on.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy — we have a tremendous amount of respect for their hockey team. They’ve beaten two very good teams to get here, and won a lot of games,” he concluded. “We’re in a better spot than we were last series after two games (down 2-0 to Colorado). We’ll go into Montreal and look to win a game.”
A trend that emerged through the opening two contests in Sin City had the Canadiens dominating the early minutes of both games. In Game 1, Marc-Andre Fleury held the fort until his skaters found their legs.
In Game 2, however, it was 2-0 after 20 minutes, and the Habs’ defensive clog-up-the-middle game was on display for the final 40.
“It’s been a topic of conversation here for a little while. Last series too,” admitted defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who had both Vegas goals — the first two-goal playoff game of his distinguished career. “It’s something we have to fix. Not good enough at the beginning, in the first period. Not good enough at the start.”
“For whatever reason our starts in the playoffs haven’t been good enough,” added captain Mark Stone. “We’ve been burnt before, we were burnt again tonight.”
To make matters worse, Montreal is that team you simply can’t fall behind. They are masterful with the lead, with opportunistic forwards like Paul Byron who get sprung for breaks when the trailing team gets too aggressive offensively. Byron scored the third goal when he evaded a Fleury poke check, a move the Vegas goaler immediately wanted to take back.
“I regretted that as soon as I did it,” Fleury confirmed. “I made up my mind too early. He cut to the middle early, and it was too far away. I shouldn’t have done that.”
It was that third goal that cemented this game for Montreal, even though Pietrangelo brought his team back to within one off a nice faceoff play with just over five minutes to play.
The Habs, however, are most comfortable when defending a lead. Their neutral zone play eats potential comebacks like corn beef sandwiches, their burly, stick-wielding defencemen clearing the slot like a cop on Crescent Street.
Vegas ended up with 31 shots, but there were some score effects to that. The Habs simply defended for the final 20 minutes, and looked very comfortable doing so.
“The last two periods we played pretty well,” Stone surmised. “Chasing the game isn’t an easy task against anybody, but these guys play a really good team game when they get the lead.
“They clog it up pretty good.”
This is the Habs game plan, just as it was for the ’90s New Jersey Devils or Dallas Stars: get a lead, then drive the excitement factor to subterranean levels. All those teams were fun to watch when they fell behind — when they had to hustle up some offence.
But like Darryl Sutter’s Los Angeles Kings, who had Jonathan Quick in his prime, a 2-0 lead for Carey Price is money, and the Habs are happy to lock it down after that.
“I’m not sure we got locked down tonight,” DeBoer disagreed. “We generated enough chances to scratch our way back into that game. I don’t think it was a case of us getting locked down once we fell behind. We generated some good looks in the last 40 minutes.”
They may have, but the coach of a Vegas team knows all too well, there is no money in falling behind the Montreal Canadiens.
The odds, they just aren’t going to pay.