The NHL’s oldest and most storied franchise versus Gary Bettman‘s newest shiny toy. A team the NHL Commissioner doesn’t need to see win, knowing they’ll make him money, versus one he’s pushing to have success by stacking the odds in their favour since day one. Carey Price versus Marc-André Fleury. Nick Suzuki and Tomas Tatar versus Max Pacioretty. A mostly empty Bell Centre versus a packed T-Mobile Arena. A definite underdog versus a heavy favourite (again). A team with no pressure versus a team expecting to win. Poutine versus medium-rare hamburger. Nightlife versus nightlife. Round three of the Stanley Cup playoffs is set: the Montreal Canadiens versus the Vegas Golden Knights is now a thing.
It all starts on Monday in fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. The Canadiens will have benefited from an entire week of much needed rest, after playing 11 playoffs’ games in 19 days, including back-to-back games in each of the first two series. They were down 3-1 in their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, then won the next three games to earn a spot in the North Division finals against the Winnipeg Jets, who had swept the Edmonton Oilers in round one. The Habs rode their hot streak by sweeping the Jets in four straight games, and are now representing the all-Canadian division in the NHL’s semi-finals. Dominique Ducharme‘s men have not trailed in a game in over 438 minutes and they have won seven consecutive games.
The Golden Knights needed seven games to get by the Minnesota Wild in the first round, before facing the very dangerous Colorado Avalanche. They beat the Avs in six games, being the final team to qualify for the semi-finals. Vegas played their 13 playoffs’ games in 26 days with no back-to-backs, before enjoying three days off before the start of their next series.
David versus Goliath
On paper, the Golden Knights are heavy favourites. The odds are stacked against the Canadiens, with odd-makers giving Vegas over 81 percent chances of winning this series. They have balanced scoring, good defense and solid goaltending. They are physical and can skate too. No less than 16 Golden Knights have scored a goal in the first two series. They are led by Jonathan Marchessault (6) and Mark Stone (5), with three more players (including Max Pacioretty) with four goals each.
Having played two fewer games than Vegas, the Canadiens are led by Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, Tyler Toffoli and Joel Armia with four goals each. They too benefit from scoring up and down the line-up as 12 skaters have scored so far in these playoffs. Led by a Carey Price in top form, the Habs’ top-4 on defense is big, nasty and punishing. While it won’t affect guys like Ryan Reaves, Keegan Kolesar and William Carrier (amongst others), Marchessault, Stone and Pacioretty won’t enjoy that very much.
5 Keys for the Habs
There are several keys in the series for the Canadiens to have any chance against Vegas, but I have five that stand out in my mind:
- Stay out of the penalty box: Easier said than done. As we’ve touched on before, many fans, myself included, are beginning to think that the Commissioner has his fingers into refereeing and Player Safety and it’s clear that he favours US-based teams. In fact, no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since Bettman has been placed in that position.
- Limit turnovers: Against the Avalanche, the Golden Knights generated turnovers and pounced on their mistakes to score. The Canadiens are sometimes prone to turning the puck over so they will have to find ways to getting the puck out of their zone without turning it over in dangerous zones.
- Special teams: The penalty-kill will have to be aggressive, not letting time for Vegas’ skilled players to set-up and make plays. The power-play will need to capitalize from time to time to keep the Golden Knights from taking liberties against the Habs.
- Control the neutral zone: Which ever team controls the neutral zone will have a better chance at winning this series. The Canadiens have owned the zone between the two blue lines since Game 5 of the Toronto series, creating turnovers and generating offense with a quick counter-attack.
- Traffic in front of Fleury: M-A Fleury is in his bubble and the Canadiens will have to do to him what they’ve done to Connor Hellebuyck. Get in his kitchen, take his focus away. Thankfully, the Habs can count on Brendan Gallagher and Corey Perry, two experts at doing just that.
We cannot talk about this series without talking about the huge trade between the two teams. On September 10, 2018, the Canadiens sent their captain Max Pacioretty to the Golden Knights. In return, the Habs received Tomas Tatar ($500,000 salary retained), prospect Nick Suzuki and a second round pick, which the Habs later turned (through trade of picks) into blue-chip defenseman Mattias Norlinder, who signed his entry level contract earlier this month.
I’m sure if you ask the Golden Knights, they’re very happy with their trade. If you ask the Canadiens, they are thrilled with it too. All three players involved in this trade have the potential to be a difference-maker in this series. For Montreal, we know that Patches does NOT like physical play and will hang in the perimeters. Rest assured that the Habs’ top-4 on defense knows that.
So there you have it folks. The table is set for a great series once again. I can’t help but have my good friend Sylvain Perreault (@SylvainPero), who will be torn between his favourite two teams. I know which way I will be cheering, as will most of you I’m sure. Go Habs Go!