Against all odds, the Montreal Canadiens have Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on the brink of elimination following a 4-3 victory in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. Here are three takeaways from another gutsy effort by the Habs.
Line Juggling Pays Dividends for the Canadiens
The Canadiens opened the scoring thanks to a Shea Weber marker but quickly found themselves trailing 2-1 after the Penguins’ power play clicked to net a pair of goals. Pittsburgh added a third goal at the start of the second period.
With Montreal reeling, the game got worse when Jake Evans was knocked out of it after a hard hit into the glass. Trailing 3-1 and with 11 forwards at his disposal, Claude Julien was forced to juggle his lines and the new combinations fueled an impressive comeback.
“Have to give credit to our players when it’s time to credit them. They showed a lot of character tonight,” Julien said.
Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron, who were both expected to provide an offensive spark for the Canadiens, did just that, scoring a pair of goals in the second frame to tie it up at 3-3. Max Domi, who has been relegated to a fourth-line center role in the series, was finally moved up and helped create Byron’s tying goal. He played his best game of the series despite being kept off the scoresheet.
It was the kind of night when everyone contributed and felt like they were involved in the outcome. A determined team effort led the Canadiens back and propelled them to an improbable victory.
Offense From the Defense
Speaking of contributions from everyone, in addition to being stalwarts in their own zone, the Habs got two goals and six points from their top three defensemen in Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot.
Weber, who has lived up to his “Man Mountain” nickname through three games, notched a goal and two assists, while his partner Chiarot, who has been equally strong, had two assists.
“We were playing well 5-on-5. That just kept us competitive and guys battled hard, no matter what the situation was tonight,” Weber said. “And in the playoffs, that’s what you need. You need just to stay even keel, whether you’re up or down. I thought tonight was the best so far we’ve been in the series like that.”
Two wins for the Canadiens and two game-winning goals for Petry who scored off a beautiful shot from a nearly impossible angle at the goal line to put his team ahead for good in the third period. Petry is the first Habs defenseman to score two game-winning goals in a playoff year since Chris Chelios in 1988-89.
Along with Brett Kulak, Montreal’s top four defenders are a big reason they find themselves ahead in the series.
Kotkaniemi and Lehkonen Building Chemistry
Montreal’s third line of Byron, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Artturi Lehkonen has been the team’s most consistent trio through three games. They generated the opening goal by driving hard to the net. Finnish compatriots Kotkaniemi and Lehkonen have shown great chemistry. Something positive seems to happen each time they are on the ice.
Regardless of the series outcome, Canadiens’ management has to be thrilled with Kotkaniemi’s performance in his playoff debut. The 20-year-old is a completely different player than the one fans last saw in a Montreal uniform earlier this season before a stint in the AHL with the Laval Rocket.
Kotkaniemi is playing like the top-six forward that the Habs need him to be and is showing why he was the no. 3 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. With him and Nick Suzuki as a 1-2 punch down the middle, along with Selke Trophy contender Phillip Danault, the Canadiens may have finally solved their long-standing problems at the centre position. That just might be the best news to come from this inspiring playoff showing.
The Canadiens are on the verge of accomplishing something not many people thought they could. They have earned the opportunity to pull off a major upset. It’s amazing what a second chance and a little confidence can do for a team. But, the Habs know the Penguins aren’t about to surrender and that the third win will be the hardest one to get.