On Tuesday morning, following the Montreal Canadiens’ Game 1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, head coach Dominique Ducharme challenged his third line, stating “they had some good things last night, but overall as a line, we need them to be more consistent.” He was referring to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Josh Anderson, and Paul Byron, who had been collectively mired in a goal slump extending back to Game 1 against the Winnipeg Jets.
On paper, the line has all the tools to compete and make plays: size, speed, skill, and grit. This allowed them to impact the game via the penalty kill (Byron) and physical play when not scoring. However, when the Canadiens lost Game 1 to Vegas, the criticism expanded and the zeroes on the scoresheet became harder to ignore. Ducharme’s challenge made it clear that he knew what the line was capable of. Just four days later, it is clear we should all know by now.
The trio enjoys the big moments, as four of the team’s 10 game-winning goals this playoff has come from this line. However, with no disrespect towards Kotkaniemi and Anderson, it is Byron in particular who has shown a more consistent flair for the dramatic during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has only two goals and two assists in 14 games, yet all are directly game-winning goals or primary assists on game-winning overtime goals. With recent history as evidence, it is clear he has established himself as a big-game performer. What makes his performance more impressive is the difficulties he faced during the 2020-21 regular season.
Heading into the 2020-21 season, many, including myself, wondered where Byron would fit into the Canadiens’ lineup considering the extensive changes the team made in the offseason. A decline in offensive production, along with unfortunate injuries in 2019-20, raised many questions about his presence on the team moving forward. However, the key criticism was partially theoretical and not one based exclusively on performance. If Byron was now certainly a bottom-six player with declining production, was he going to be worth the $3.4 million cap hit moving forward? A question such as this truly highlights the somewhat ruthless nature of the business side of the game. That said, it was inevitably going to be asked.
Byron did still manage to play 46 games in 2020-21, scoring five goals and finishing with 16 points total. He went cold for long stretches, and as a result, found himself out of the lineup at different times. As a veteran player, a leader on the team, with an “A” on his jersey, this must have been difficult. In addition, and mostly due to a cap crunch, Byron also found himself on waivers three separate times. At any moment he could have been claimed by another team. Ironically, it may have been his contract that dissuaded other organizations from taking chance on the 32-year-old winger.
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In any case, no one would have blamed him for being discouraged by the results of the regular season, but that (they say) is the beauty of the NHL playoffs: everyone gets a second opportunity. Byron did not wait long to take advantage of this chance.
The first major impact Byron made in the playoffs was the very memorable, game-winning, shorthanded goal against the Maple Leafs in Game 1. Images and videos of the goal flooded social media directly after the game. The goal had an effect beyond the online adoration for the skill required to execute it. Instead, it also proved the Canadiens would not be an easy out against their historical rival. If the team had any doubts, Byron put them to rest with that goal.
The Canadiens struggled the next three games before winning Game 5 in overtime. Game 6 was another must-win for Montreal, and once again Byron made his mark. In the latter stages of the overtime period, Byron received a pass from Shea Weber near center ice. He bobbled the puck, allowing Maple Leaf defenseman Travis Dermott to corral the puck. However, the speedy winger did not give up on the play. He forced Dermott into a tough position and caused a turnover. Byron fed Kotkaniemi with a hard pass and at 15:15 of overtime and the Canadiens scored, forcing a Game 7. The pressure entirely shifted to the shoulders of the Maple Leafs. The rest is now history. Two game-winning goals were now directly tied to Byron. Moving forward in the playoffs more of the same occurred.
The Canadiens entered their series against the Golden Knights as massive underdogs once again. Some pundits may have felt validated in their predictions after an impressive Game 1 win for Vegas, but the script flipped in Game 2. With the Canadiens already leading by two late in the second period, Byron picked up a loose puck just inside the Golden Knights’ zone and beat goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with a high backhand shot just under the crossbar.
The Golden Knights pushed to make the game close, but Byron’s tally held up as the game-winner. In a similar fashion to the series against the Maple Leafs, this win, spurred on by Byron’s effort, seemed to suggest that the Canadiens belonged in this series definitively. The only question was whether this win would be a one off, or a seizing of the momentum long term? This question still persists, of course. Nevertheless, it was a massive win and a confidence boost for the Canadiens.
The Story Continues
Now, how about Friday night? The Canadiens played arguably their worst 30-40 minutes of the playoffs during the first two periods, but managed to keep the game at a tie. In the third period, the Golden Knights took the lead and looked content to simply clog the neutral zone and deter any quick ups and rushes from the Canadiens. However, after a blunder by Fleury, the Canadiens tied the game sending it to overtime. Queue Byron and Josh Anderson.
Vegas winger Reilly Smith failed to dump the puck into the Montreal zone. With the other Golden Knights attempting a line change, Kotkaniemi launched a pass up ice to Anderson. Anderson was able to knock the puck down, but was too far in front of the play to create anything. Luckily for the Canadiens, Byron read the play and followed up. Byron’s pass to Anderson for the winner was perfectly executed. The deception and poise exhibited only solidified my opinion that he is fast becoming a clutch playoff performer. To win a Stanley Cup, you need clutch players making clutch plays.
The Canadiens stole Game 3 and now they have a 2-1 series lead. Time will tell if Byron and the Canadiens can continue their impressive drive for the Stanley Cup.
Hello there, folks! My name is Stephen Michaud. Like so many in Canada, I grew up playing the game of hockey from a young age. My passion for playing spawned a yearning for following the NHL and other leagues around the world. Here at The Hockey Writers I have been tasked with covering the Montreal Canadiens, which I hope to do in a detailed and honest fashion.