The Montreal Canadiens left Canada for the first time in 15 months to discover the hard way how the game’s being played a little more intensely south of the border.
What appeared apparent from afar in watching the Vegas Golden Knights wear down the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche in six games of their West Division final series, became an up-close reality for the Canadiens in opening the Stanley Cup Semifinals with a 4-1 loss on Monday night.
“Yeah, they have their strengths for sure, but we have ours,” interim coach Dominique Ducharme said.
“I really liked the way we started. Penalties killed our momentum and rhythm,” he added. “But besides that, it’s not something we’re surprised with or that we didn’t know about.”
Now the challenge is being able to adapt as the teams meet again in Vegas on Wednesday.
The Golden Knights were relentless on their forecheck and dominated the second period in out-shooting the Canadiens 13-5. And most important, they had the usually defensively sound Canadiens running around in their own zone for long stretches while creating havoc in front of goalie Carey Price to beat him four times on 30 shots.
The turning point came immediately after Montreal gained a boost on rookie Cole Caufield’s goal to cut Vegas’ lead to 2-1 at the 12:05 mark of the second period. Vegas responded 53 seconds later when Mattias Janmark curled around Montreal defenseman Brett Kulak and got into position to deflect in Alex Tuch’s shot inside the left post.
“There’s a few situations where we can react better,” Ducharme said. “Our puck support was not as good, so that’s something we can do better. We’ll adjust.”
Montreal pinned the loss on taking three consecutive penalties spanning the first intermission. Though the Canadiens didn’t allow a power-play goal, the time killing penalties wore down their key players.
The Canadiens also took encouragement out of how they dominated the opening minutes only to be denied by several acrobatic saves by Marc-Andre Fleury.
“I thought we came out firing in the first period, and then we kind of sat back and let them come at us,” defenseman Joel Edmundson said. “But we know we’ll be better next game.”
The trouble is, Montreal had difficulty maintaining puck control in the offensive zone while at even-strength, and was limited to two shots on goal in the third period before a 10-shot barrage in the final minutes with Price pulled for an extra attacker.
Vegas, making its third semifinal appearance in its fourth season of existence, boasts four-line depth and experienced two-way defensemen. On Monday, the Golden Knights leaned on their blue line to generate offense with Shea Theodore scoring and setting up Alec Martinez for what stood as the game-winning goal.
“I’ve used the phrase, `sum of our parts,′ all year. And I think when you look at our playoff scoring, we’ve gotten contributions from everybody,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said, whose team now has 17 players score at least one goal this postseason. “Tonight it was our defense.”
The result continues to raise questions over whether the NHL’s All-Canadian North Division was its weakest during a 56-game coronavirus pandemic shortened season in which teams were limited to inter-division play until the semifinal round.
Montreal was considered an afterthought entering the playoffs with a 24-21-11 record — the worst among the 16 postseason qualifiers. The Canadiens benefitted from playing two opponents who lacked depth and forechecking ability.
By clamping down defensively, and riding Price’s puck-smothering calm in the crease, the Canadiens overcame a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate Toronto in the first round. And they continued to roll in the second round by sweeping a Winnipeg Jets opponent missing one of its top players in Mark Scheifele, who was suspended for the final three games.
On Saturday as the Canadiens prepared to travel to Vegas, Montreal GM Marc Bergevin dismissed a question of the North Division being considered weak.
“I’m not sure where that comes from. There was not an easy night in our division,” Bergevin said. “Plus hockey in Canada, you’re in the spotlight every night. So it was a tough division, and hockey at it’s best. Every team almost had superstars and it was not easy.”
Before leaving Canada, the Canadiens enjoyed a seven-game winning streak, a stretch in which they had not trailed for 437 minutes and 53 seconds which ranked as the second longest in NHL playoff history. Both ended in Vegas on Monday.