The Montreal Canadiens shocked the hockey world on Monday night after eliminating the Toronto Maple Leafs from the 2021 Playoffs to advance to the second round. To call them the underdogs against the star-studded Scotiabank North Division champions is an understatement; not one series prediction favoured the Canadiens.
The Maple Leafs had a 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5, and they had controlled the pace and style of play to that point, limiting the Habs to a paltry four goals for. Yes, four. But in Game 5, everything changed. The Canadiens found something inside them, perhaps pride or maybe they fed off the calm confidence of their star goaltender Carey Price:
“I believe in these guys. These guys are talented guys. I see their shots in practice every day, and I have no doubt that they have the ability to score goals. They’re trying out there, I know they are, and it’s going to come.”Carey Price (from his Game 3 post-game interview)
His words seem prophetic now as the Canadiens scored 10 goals in the last three games of the series. So, what changed? What can the Habs take from those three games that won them the series to face the Winnipeg Jets in round two.
The Canadiens’ special teams were in the bottom half of the league this season with a 17th ranked power play and a 23rd ranked penalty kill that still led the league in short-handed goals with nine.
In the first round, the Canadiens took 23 penalties and killed off 87% of them, a marked improvement over the 78.5% success rate in the regular season. They were also given 19 power plays and scored three times for a 15.8% success rate, lower than their 19.2% in the regular season. Leading the way with controlled zone entries and quick puck movement were their future stars, Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield.
Against the Maple Leafs, as in the regular season, the Habs’ power play was unable to score while the penalty kill did well enough to get a short-handed goal, which only made the man advantage look more feeble because it was outscored by the penalty kill. Again, that changed in Game 5, when they started to hold the offensive zone.
In Game 6, Montreal scored twice on the power play, their only goals in regulation in a 3-2 overtime victory. In Game 7, the power play was the nail in the Leafs’ coffin as Corey Perry scored the eventual game-winner goal to make it 2-0.
The Canadiens needed their special teams to step up, and when they did, they played a a key role in the series upset.
It’s been said ad nauseam: the Canadiens were built for the playoffs. General manager Marc Bergevin added size and grit to get the team through a physical series. While this series was not as physical as others, Montreal’s game plan paid off.
When they employed a physical puck-pursuit game, they started to win. It was also why they were successful at the beginning of the regular season, but then teams started to use the trap. Toronto attempted the trap in this series, but they weren’t built to defend using that system, so the Canadiens beat the Maple Leafs with a physical game.
By consistently challenging the Maple Leafs’ defence, it began to wear on them, and they started to rush plays up the boards where the Canadiens’ forwards could close the gaps. Tight gaps made sure the Maple Leafs’ talented forwards couldn’t build speed entering and through the neutral zone, which funnelled them toward the Canadiens’ large, physical defence led by captain Shea Weber. The Habs could then keep most of Toronto’s shots away from the high-danger areas to ease Price’s workload.
Montreal’s aggressive forecheck led to several scoring opportunities and goals. By playing physically and controlling the play along the boards and in front of the net, they outworked the Maple Leafs’ defence. Both Joel Armia goals, as well as Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s goal in Game 5, were the direct result of using physical play to gain control and outmuscle the opposition’s defence.
Many were critical of Price’s play during the regular season, which seems to happen every year, and he has had a difficult time trying to live up to the high standard he has set for himself. However, in the playoffs, he has risen to the challenge. In the Canadiens’ last three postseasons, Price has raised his save percentage above .930, and his calm demeanour under pressure can elevate a team.
The confidence he instills in his team, even as the underdog, can’t be measured.
The Habs will need to focus on these takeaways when they face the Jets starting on Wednesday in Winnipeg. The makeup of their roster is very different from Toronto’s, but the Canadiens must play to their strengths if they want their season to continue. Adjustments will be made; however, Montreal has shown their resilience and have learned to use their strengths to their advantage. Winning one series made Habs Empire feel great. Imagine what it will feel like if they win another series against a strong opponent.