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.
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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.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.