The Montreal Canadiens entered the 2021 Playoffs as massive underdogs. No one predicted that they would win a first-round series against the regular-season Scotia North Division champion Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs were too skilled and too fast for the Habs. Despite going down 1-3 in the series, they strung together three convincing wins in a row to upset the Leafs and move on.
In the second round, the Canadiens were again the underdogs to the Winnipeg Jets. A team that had a top nine that was too deep, too big and too skilled to be beaten. Somehow, the Canadiens found a way to sweep that series and win the division title.
Now, they face the Honda West Division champions, the Vegas Golden Knights. There are many story lines, including the matchup between Nick Suzuki and former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty. Now, the Canadiens face a team that is said to be too deep, too skilled and with a strong goaltender.
They are, once again, the massive underdogs, a role they seem to embrace. For the Canadiens to have a chance at winning this semifinals series, there are several things that must go their way. Here are just three keys for the Canadiens to have a chance at winning this matchup:
Two words, Carey Price. So far in the 2021 Playoffs, he leads all goaltenders with a .935 save percentage (SV%). If the Canadiens hope to win, they need him to keep up this elite level of play. In the first round versus Toronto, despite the Maple Leafs holding strong possession numbers, it was Price’s play that helped turn the tables for the Canadiens.
When given goal support, the Canadiens have been a formidable opponent. The team has won the last 15 games in which they have scored three or more goals, which includes six of the eight wins in this playoff run.
“He’s really in the zone and he wants to win. He gives us a chance to win every game, he gives us wings.”Phillip Danault
Judging by his 1.97 goals-against average (GAA) in these playoffs, statistically, the Canadiens should win any game they score three or more. This is also helped by his defence who have allowed only 30 high-danger chances against (HDCA) in the 11 playoff games thus far.
This is an area where the Canadiens hold a distinct advantage in this series. On the power play, they have converted at a rate of 18.8 percent. This is the third best power play of the four remaining teams. Vegas sits fourth with a power-play rate of 14.3 percent. The Canadiens have been able to create more puck movement and generate shots on net while pushing traffic to the net, which has resulted in some success on the power play so far in these playoffs. That is something the Knights will need to key in on, by becoming more aggressive in attacking the puck carrier. However, they will need to be aware that it opens them up to allowing more open space to a shooter like Cole Caufield who could hurt them if a pass makes it through to him.
The Canadiens have a significant advantage on the penalty kill as well. The Golden Knights’ penalty kill is the third best of the four semifinalists — the Habs are the best at 90.3 percent. This is why the Golden Knights will want to remain at 5-on-5 as much as possible. If they take penalties, they have serious problems defending. The Canadiens may be more willing to take chances at 5-on-5 as their penalty kill has been so strong, and, if they do end up shorthanded, they can’t be counted out offensively either as they lead the playoffs with three shorthanded goals.
Dictating the Pace
As mentioned, Vegas has depth. They have no superstars who can change a game on a single shot like the Maple Leafs had, but they do have excellent scoring depth. The Canadiens’ game plan will not be all that different from the one fans watched in the Winnipeg series. Control the pace of the game by taking away speed in transition.
The Canadiens’ forecheck will be used to force the Golden Knights’ defence into making quick decisions. By layering their forecheck, it will allow for offensive support in case of a turnover or to provide defensive support if the puck battle is lost. Each layer will ensure that no Knight could build up speed and force them to chip the puck or make a poor decision in a passing play. This is a system Vegas employs as well, which may help the Canadiens as they match-up better with teams when the pace of the game is slowed down.
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This style has generated 41 high-danger chances for (HDCF) in the playoffs for the Canadiens, which outstrips the Golden Knights who generated 32 HDCF. If that rate can continue in this series, the Canadiens could fare well enough offensively to score three or more goals at least four times over seven games.
Defensively, it will be important to continue the tight five-man box they used versus Winnipeg. This defensive scheme helped to clear the slot of enemy players, giving Price an unobstructed view, making it easier for him to make difficult saves look easy. If the Canadiens can keep the Golden Knights’ big forwards like Mark Stone, Alex Tuch and even Max Pacioretty out of the slot, it will make it that much harder for them to score as they get most of their goals from in close and using cross-crease passes, something that is less likely to happen if the Canadiens’ five-man box is employed correctly.
Embrace the Underdog Role
Each round, the Canadiens have been the massive underdogs, with very few giving them any hopes of making any series a challenge as they came out of the Scotia North Division. That trend continues into the semifinals.
Everything the Candiens have done in these playoffs should make them less of an underdog as they’re made out to be, but with the team being given miniscule odds by the Vegas oddsmakers, they must embrace that underdog mentality that has been seen so far. Something Tyler Toffoli mentioned after the Jets series was swept:
“It kind of feels like nobody believes in us. The only people we have are ourselves and our fans, which clearly, with the small amount of fans in the building, it sounded a lot more than what it was, are behind us,”Tyler Toffoli
The Canadiens have defied the odds to make it to the final four of these playoffs. It’s clear that Vegas is the favorite to take this series and win a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. However, there is a reason the games are played and the Canadiens could pull off another upset to add another chapter to their Cinderella story.
Statistics in this article can be found at Natural Stat Trick