Win the middle, win the game. A phrase coined by long-time Montreal sportscaster Brian Wilde some time ago to explain the Montreal Canadiens’ struggles against the NHL’s top teams. The evidence was clear with recent Stanley Cup champions all boasting formidable centres who controlled the game.
It’s no secret that the centre position has been a point of weakness for the Habs for the better part of two decades and a big reason why they couldn’t get into the contender conversation. That is until now. The Canadiens are set to make their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1993 because they have been winning the middle of the ice thanks to a great mix of talented youngsters and more experienced veterans.
A Pair of Stars in the Making
One of the biggest takeaways from Montreal’s surprise performance in Toronto’s playoff bubble last year was the experience gained by their two young centres in Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki. Not to mention how well they played in their postseason debuts. That experience has proved invaluable already as they have been even better the second time around.
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Twenty-year-old Kotkaniemi joined some rather elite company on Tuesday night after opening the scoring in the Canadiens’ 4-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead in the Stanley Cup Semifinals. He became the ninth player in NHL history to score nine playoff goals before his 21st birthday, an exclusive list that includes the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby. He’s scored those nine goals over a 26-game span.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Suzuki is already up to 20 points in 27 career playoff games, including 13 points in 17 games so far this postseason. His 200-foot game is just as impressive as he often makes key defensive plays at crucial times.
“He’s super competitive. Like a lot of guys on our team, his compete level is really, really high. Obviously, the skill set is there, and the intelligence is there, but you need to have that extra compete and that level of competitiveness in order to make a difference,” Eric Staal said of Suzuki.
It’s not just how much they are producing but that they are also delivering in key moments when it matters most. If these two are this good now, imagine the impact they will have in five years? The Canadiens have finally found their 1-2 punch down the middle for the present and perhaps more importantly, for the future as well.
A Defensive Specialist
The perfect complement to the two young guns is the defensive excellence of Phillip Danault who is using these playoffs to show why he finished sixth in voting for the Selke Trophy and why the Habs would be wise to re-sign the pending unrestricted free agent as soon as possible.
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On Tuesday against Vegas, Danault was on the ice for just his second goal against at 5-on-5 since Game 4 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Night after night, he has gone up against his opponent’s biggest offensive threats and essentially made each of them a non-factor. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Kyle Connor, Nikloaj Ehlers, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty have all been shutdown masterfully during this improbable run.
In addition to winning a ton of key faceoffs, he’s also been an instrumental piece of Montreal’s penalty kill which has not allowed a power play goal in the last 30 times the team has been shorthanded.
“We’re a special team. I’m really lucky to be here and to have the chance to battle with these guys every night. We give ourselves a chance to win every game. We found our playoff swagger,” Danault explained.
Completing Montreal’s centre quartet is Eric Staal who has revived his career in the postseason with eight points in 16 games. He’s also tied for the team lead in even strength points, quite a turnaround from his struggles in the regular season. His line alongside Joel Armia and Corey Perry has been dominant and so tough to play against. They excel at puck possession and can change the momentum of a game with one shift.
Staal’s leadership has been evident both on and off the ice since being acquired prior to the trade deadline. The knowledge he is passing on to Suzuki, Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans will prove vital for their development in the coming years. Being a former Stanley Cup champion doesn’t hurt either.
The depth doesn’t stop there. Evans, a natural centre, was playing on the wing before suffering a concussion against the Winnipeg Jets in the second round and Ryan Poehling enjoyed a standout season in the AHL with the Laval Rocket.
It’s not a coincidence that the last time the Canadiens were this strong down the middle was when Vincent Damphousse, Guy Carbonneau, Kirk Muller, Denis Savard and Stefan Lebeau led the Habs to their 24th Stanley Cup 28 years ago because it sure does feel like 1993 around Montreal these days.