The Montreal Canadiens did the unthinkable when they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in their best-of-five qualifying series. They won Game 4, 2-0, to clinch their spot in the playoff bracket.
The Canadiens fought tooth and nail to defeat the favoured Penguins. Here are three takeaways that led to the upset.
Defence, Defence, and More Defence
The Canadiens came into the series as major underdogs and had a significant mountain to climb in order to win. Luckily, they had a man-mountain on their team – Shea Weber. Weber was the leader of a group of defenders that shut down the Penguins’ top two lines for most of the series.
The pairings of Weber with Ben Chiarot, and Jeff Petry with Brett Kulak, were assigned with shutting down Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, respectively. Strong games from both held the Penguins’ dynamic duo to two goals in the series – both by Crosby.
Weber, Petry, and Chiarot averaged over 25 minutes of ice time each, with Kulak at over 18 minutes. They produced a great shutdown penalty kill (PK), which held Pittsburghs’ power play (PP) to three goals in 17 tries for the series. Xavier Ouellet was another surprise for the Canadiens, playing over 15 minutes and leading the team in blocked shots with 10 while also providing sound defense at 5v5 and on the PK.
The forwards provided strong defense as well, led by Phillip Danault, who played against Crosby for most of the series. Nick Suzuki had the daunting task of playing against Malkin and did not disappoint, holding him to only one assist in the series. Defense was Claude Julien’s gameplan, and his player assignments were matched perfectly; Suzuki-Weber with the bigger Malkin, and Danault-Petry with the more talented Crosby.
The Youth Movment
Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi came into the series with serious question marks about how well the youngsters would handle the pressure. Neither player disappointed: Suzuki played a great 5v5 game, but also was a key player on the PK on the second unit. Suzuki’s line held Pittsburgh’s second line to only two goals, one of them on the PP.
Kotkaniemi showed early that he was ready to take the next step, scoring two goals in his first two games and providing the team with a solid 200-foot game in the series. He started using his size to his advantage and, as the series went on, was winning board battles and laying some hits.
“The only chance we have is if we play on our toes and not on our heels and go out there and have some confidence and play hard,We’re putting you out there because we have confidence in you and you have to go out and show you can do it,”
Claude Julien’s message to “the young guys” – From, ‘In the Habs’ Room: Youngsters make big impression in playoff debut’ Montreal Gazette, 08/02/2020).
If their confidence continues to grow, their play will only get better as the playoffs continue. Julien had enough confidence in them to move Danault down to the third line and move Suzuki and Kotkaniemi up to the first and second lines. This not only provided better linemates for the two young centers but allowed Julien to have a strong shutdown third line, which was a huge factor in their Game 4 victory.
All season long, people were whispering that Price is not the best in the world anymore. His numbers this season were average and he is getting older. The 32-year-old, however, shut the critics down pretty quick from the puck drop in Game 1.
He was a major factor in the Canadiens’ huge series upset. He had a stellar .947 save percentage (SV%) with a 1.67 goals-against average (GAA). He looked cool and confident the entire series, and was the only reason, at times, that the Canadiens were involved in the game. Price proved that with rest, he can be the deciding factor in any series. Before the play-in round started, NHL players were worried about Price’s play in a short series and he was one of the reasons the play-ins are a best-of-five and not three.
Price will soon be 33, and the Canadiens need to start advancing in the playoffs if they want to get the best of him for a Stanley Cup run. He is showing – at least in the first series – he wants to win now. If he keeps playing like this, the team’s forwards can relax more and concentrate on putting the puck in the net, which has been the biggest issue for the team in the last few playoffs.
On to Philadelphia or Tampa Bay, But Staying in Toronto
With this major upset, the Canadiens will now face either the Philadelphia Flyers or Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. It’s hard to say who would be the better matchup because, honestly, the Canadiens shouldn’t be here anyway. No one thought they would beat Pittsburgh. No one.
What’s your prediction for round one? I’m going with the underdog this time and saying Canadiens in six, only because I had them losing in four in the play-in series, which was very wrong. Either way, the Habs will have another tough matchup again in Toronto. If anything, it will be exciting, and now that they have a 0% chance to get the 1st overall pick, they might as well go for the Cup.