How the Canadiens shocked the NHL

1 Comment

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.


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.

Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

“I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

“We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

The outcome was determined long before that.

After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

“That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

“I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.

Penguins name former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as director of hockey operations

Getty Images

PITTSBURGH (AP) Kyle Dubas wanted to take a breath and take a break after being fired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Then the Pittsburgh Penguins called.

The break ended shortly thereafter.

Dubas joined the Penguins as the team’s president of hockey operations, less than two weeks after a somewhat ugly exit from Toronto following a second-round playoff loss to Florida.

The 37-year-old Dubas goes from one type of hockey crucible to another. In Toronto, he was tasked with helping the Maple Leafs emerge from two decades of postseason futility. In Pittsburgh, his mission will be to prop open the Stanley Cup window for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer.

All three are 35 or older and haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Yet Dubas believes strongly the issue isn’t the age of the franchise’s core but deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. Dubas replaces Brian Burke, who was fired along with general manager Ron Hextall in April after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

“I heard a lot of people that were highly skeptical of the team’s ability to contend here and the way I view it, if the people want to bet against (Crosby, Letang and Malkin) they can go ahead and do so,” Dubas said. “But I’m going to bet on them and go with them here. I think it is a group that’s capable of contending to win a championship.”

Crosby and Malkin were excellent for much of last season and Letang showed remarkable resiliency while dealing with multiple setbacks, including a stroke and the death of his father. Yet save for a 14-2-2 stretch in November and December, the Penguins struggled to find consistency and ultimately stumbled down the stretch to snap the longest active playoff streak in major North American Sports.

While the Penguins do have $20 million in cap space and the 14th overall pick in this month’s NHL draft, significant changes or upgrades could be difficult in the short term.

Dubas inherits a team that was the oldest in the NHL last season and is littered with question marks, particularly in goal and the forward group outside of Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

Two-time All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer and was beset by injuries over the second half of the season. Forward Jason Zucker, who served as the emotional sparkplug for long stretches, is also scheduled to hit the open market and may have priced himself out of town.

Pittsburgh also has several aging players with full or partial no-movement clauses, including 38-year-old forward Jeff Carter, 30-year-old Bryan Rust and 35-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry.

“I think that those are obviously very real situations, everyone knows that they exist,” Dubas said. “To me the effect on it … is what we can add in terms of depth pieces? What we can add in terms of younger players? That’ll be the real key.”

Dubas does plan to hire a general manager to fill the vacancy created when Hextall was let go after a short but largely unfruitful tenure. Dubas will serve as the GM on an interim basis until early July.

Dubas comes to Pittsburgh after nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, including the last five as general manager. Toronto won a postseason series for the first time since 2004 this spring before falling to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.

Shortly after the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit, Dubas said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in Toronto. His contract was set to expire on June 30, but team president Kyle Shanahan opted to pre-emptively fire Dubas instead. Toronto hired former Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving as Dubas’ replacement.

Dubas helped build the Maple Leafs into a regular-season power during his tenure. Toronto set single-season records for wins and points, and went 221-109-42 in his tenure. Dubas also didn’t shy away from big moves – he fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock in November 2019 and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe – but struggled to find the right mix in the playoffs until this spring.

In the end, advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 2004 wasn’t enough for Dubas to remain in Toronto.

He joked he was maybe a little “too honest” during his season-ending press conference with the Maple Leafs when he expressed reservations about returning. Shanahan’s abrupt decision to move on came as a bit of a surprise, and Dubas planned to take some time to hit the reset button before looking for another job.

Yet the Penguins – who’d already been given clearance by the Maple Leafs to interview Dubas – provided a compelling reason to speed up the timetable. Dubas’ due diligence included speaking to Crosby and longtime coach Mike Sullivan to take the pulse of a leadership group that remains firmly in place.

Dubas called them “some of the best competitors” in hockey. Competitors that have – for one reason or another – been unable to recapture the magic of their runs to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

Time is running out for Crosby to put his name on the Cup for a fourth time in a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Dubas knows he’ll be judged in part on whether he can make that happen. After taking more than six weeks of searching before landing on Dubas, Fenway Sports Group Chairman Tom Werner believes Dubas is up to the challenge.

“Our philosophy is giving Kyle and his associates the best possible resources to win,” Werner said. “Kyle’s been very articulate today about his path to success … we’re very confident that Kyle will execute the plan he’s articulated to us.”