How the Canadiens shocked the NHL

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Nobody expected the Montreal Canadiens to be here.

Not you. Not me. Probably not even the most diehard Canadiens fans.

Maybe they hoped for it. Maybe thought it could have been a possibility. But nobody actually expected it.

When Artturi Lehkonen beat Robin Lehner 1:39 into overtime in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup Semifinal series on Thursday night, it gave the Canadiens a 3-2 win and punched their ticket to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1993. And they did it in a season where they finished with the 18th best record in the NHL, making them one of the lowest ranking teams to ever make the Cup Final.

The only recent comparisons in the modern era are the 2016-17 Nashville Predators (17th) and the 1990-91 Minnesota North Stars were 16th in a 21-team league and only won 27 out of 80 games during the regular season.

[Related: Canadiens advance to Stanley Cup Final]

They did it by overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the First Round against Toronto, sweeping Winnipeg in the Second Round, and then beating a Vegas team that finished tied for the league’s best record without current head coach Dominique Ducharme after he tested positive for COVID. And they did not just beat Vegas. They largely outplayed them.

How exactly did they get here?

1. Carey Price

The biggest answer is the most obvious answer.

There is no greater X-factor in the NHL than great goaltending. And Price is giving the Canadiens some spectacular goaltending this postseason.

He enters the Stanley Cup Final with a league-best .934 save percentage in 17 appearances, while playing literally every minute of the playoffs for the Canadiens so far. Go back to the start of Game 4 of the First Round when Montreal was facing a 3-1 series deficit and that save percentage creeps closer to .940 during an 11-2 run.

He has looked calm, poised, always in position, securing everything with no rebounds, and making big save after big save. One of the most notable saves came in overtime of Game 6, just seconds before Lehkonen’s winner, when he stoned former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty on a wide open look from the slot and allowed no rebound.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

And about that Montreal penalty kill that is clicking at a 94% rate in the playoffs? Price has an absolutely mind-blowing .952 save percentage in shorthanded situations. Among goalies that have played in at least seven games this postseason only one other (Cam Talbot, on only 33 shots) has a save percentage over .895 in those situations.

You are simply not beating a team with that level of goaltending.

For years Price was one of the league’s best goalies and never consistently had a team around him that was capable of putting together a serious championship run. A Cup is the only thing his career has been lacking. Now he is just four games away. And oddly enough, as strange as it may seem given their record, the team around him might actually be capable of it.

2. Did we sell this Canadiens team short?

This is a fascinating team to look at because when you look at their place in the standings the past two years they do not look anything like a contender. Not even close.

They had the 24th best record in the league a year ago and only made the playoffs because of the bubble set up where they stunned the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round.

This year they were 18th.

That is an average to below average team based on nothing but record.

But let’s dig a little below the standings, because during those two years there have been signs that there is a potentially good team here. Especially when it comes to their 5-on-5 play. Here are the Canadiens’ league-wide rankings the past two seasons in several key 5-on-5 categories.

They have been an elite 5-on-5 team. Among the best in the league. Right up there with Vegas, Colorado, Boston, Washington, and every other contender. In the playoffs, they completely neutralized the best players on Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas in each round. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty combined to score four goals in 17 games against Montreal in the playoffs. None of them scored more than one goal.

They may not be loaded with superstars, but players like Brendan Gallagher, Philip Danault, Jeff Petry, Shea Weber, Tyler Toffoli, and Corey Perry can shut you down.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 schedule, TV info]

What held them back last season was the fact their goaltending was not particularly good and they did not have enough forwards that could finish and turn that possession into goals.

They addressed the former by acquiring Jake Allen to help keep Price rested. And while it did not make a noticeable impact on their regular season numbers, Price only played 25 games during the regular season and is clearly at his best right now when the Canadiens haven’t needed him most. Seems significant for a soon-to-be 34-year-old goalie.

They addressed the latter by adding Tyler Toffolli in free agency, who has been their most impactful player all season, and trading for Josh Anderson.

With Anderson, you can have valid concerns about his contract and the fact he cooled off considerably after a fast start, but those early goals still count, and they made an impact. He scored nine goals in the Canadiens’ first 13 games and played a major role in them starting the season with an 8-3-2 record. Without that start, they may not make the playoffs at all.

3. They have two young impact players starting to emerge

For as important as the additions of Toffoli, Anderson, and Perry have been, the most significant development offensively might be the emergence of Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. They are the young game-changers the Canadiens have been lacking, and they have arrived.

Suzuki, the key piece of the Pacioretty trade, was Montreal’s most impressive skater in the bubble a year ago and followed that performance with a great sophomore season that saw him improve across the board during the 2020-21 season. He has been great in these playoffs and looks like he will be a foundational building block for years.

And then there is Caufield, a late season addition after leaving the University of Wisconsin.

Every time he touches the ice right now he looks like a player that is capable of changing the game, and at times he has. He already has nine points in his 13 games this postseason, and scored as many goals in the semifinal series (four) as all the Golden Knights forwards scored.

Goaltending matters. Good defense matters. Commitment to the system and your style of play matters. But sometimes you still need a player that can do this and create a goal on their own.

Now the Canadiens have it.

Was there some luck along the way? You bet. But there always is for any team that goes far. It is a necessary ingredient. But a dominant 5-on-5 team finally got the goaltending it needed and found enough finishers to have everything come together at just the right time.

Now they have a shot to win the Stanley Cup.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

Mitch Marner
USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.