The Honda West Division has officially been conquered, and now it’s onto the third round of NHL postseason play for the Vegas Golden Knights, facing off with the Scotia North Division champion Montreal Canadiens with a Stanley Cup Final spot on the line.
On paper, the series looks like a mismatch — Vegas finished the regular season with 23 more points than Montreal. Of course, that was before Carey Price found his otherworldly form in net and the Habs, winners of seven straight games, stunned the top two North seeds, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets.
Ahead of what should be a fascinating and potentially unpredictable final four series, my THW colleague and Canadiens expert Melissa Boyd and I broke down the semifinal clash and addressed some of the key burning questions ahead of the series, which begins Monday night at T-Mobile Arena.
Who Are the X-Factors for Each Team Heading Into the Series?
Ben Fisher: The key for Vegas will likely come down to being able to get pucks past Price, who has allowed just 22 goals over 11 playoff games. To me, that points to the second line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, who have thrived so far by creating havoc in front of opposing netminders. The trio has accumulated 26 playoff points thus far and promise to be a handful for Price and a thinned Montreal blue-line corps.
Speaking of the blue line, it’s also worth keeping an eye on the Golden Knights’ back end. Alex Pietrangelo is finally coming into his own after a trying regular season, with eight points in 13 games. Shea Theodore may not be enjoying the same scoring output, but it’s not for lack of trying. His 37 shots on goal ranks third on the team, even as he has just six assists to show for it. I think something has to give there.
Melissa Boyd: I think it goes without saying that Price will have to be outstanding once again and probably play even better than he did the first two rounds, which speaks to how good Vegas is. Plus, he’ll have to out-duel Marc-Andre Fleury, which is no easy feat. If he is playing at the top of his game, he gives the Canadiens such confidence and gives them a chance against any team in the league.
Another X-factor will be Montreal’s top four on defense. They played so well in shutting down Toronto and Winnipeg and played a ton of minutes, too. Will they be able to hold up against Vegas’ relentless attack? They need Jeff Petry back in a hurry if his injury allows.
The Canadiens are going to need a spark and some energy from their kids, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Alexander Romanov, especially with Petry considered doubtful for Game 1. It seems like when the Habs have needed an important goal in the postseason, these youngsters are somehow involved. It’s really a testament to them and their desire to win. They love the spotlight and the big occasions — can’t get much bigger than this!
How Much Do You See the Rest vs Momentum Debate Coming Into Play in This Series?
BF: It’ll be a story either way, but I don’t think either team is placing too much focus on it. Yes, Montreal will have been off for seven days by the time Game 1 gets underway, but Vegas will have also been off for four. As a point of comparison, heading into the Canadiens/Jets second-round series, Montreal was just two days removed from their Game 7 victory against Toronto, while Winnipeg had been sitting on the sidelines for nine days.
MB: I was actually relieved that the Canadiens were able to sweep the Jets because they did need a rest after playing 11 games in a very short span. Many of the team’s veterans who will be heavily counted on in this series will certainly benefit from the break. Perhaps they will need to get their legs under them in Game 1, but I think the rest will help them as the series progresses.
What Is the Feeling in Vegas/Montreal About the Max Pacioretty/Nick Suzuki Trade, a Common Link Between the Teams?
BF: It’s an interesting time for this series to be taking place, as the scale on the outcome of this trade definitely seems to be starting to tilt in Montreal’s favor. Nick Suzuki is just 21 and is clearly a star on the rise, breaking out this postseason with eight points (four goals, four assists) in 11 games. Tomas Tatar has also been a great find after struggling with Vegas, with just eight fewer points than Pacioretty since the trade (157 to 149).
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Of course, Pacioretty has been everything general manager Kelly McCrimmon and the Golden Knights had hoped. He led the club in scoring during a 32-goal 2019-20 season and had been a reliable top-line presence alongside Mark Stone. Now, however, potential for age-related regression looms with his 33rd birthday coming early next season.
It remains to be seen how the last three years and $21 million on the Connecticut-native’s deal with look, especially as Suzuki blossoms. Of course, a Stanley Cup would instantly cement the deal as a win on the Vegas side of the ledger.
MB: I think it’s one of those trades that has worked out great for both teams. (from “Win-win: Pacioretty deal reaps rewards for Canadiens and Golden Knights,” Stu Cowan, Montreal Gazette, 06/11/21) Pacioretty was a popular player in Montreal no doubt, but it was obvious that a change was needed for both sides. I know I was quite happy with the return when the trade happened and even more so now. General manager Marc Bergevin could not afford to mess up this trade and he certainly didn’t.
The Habs got the young top-line centre that they so desperately needed in Suzuki, Tatar was Montreal’s leading scorer in the regular season for two straight years and they were able to use the pick they acquired in the deal to pick a very good prospect in defenseman Mattias Norlinder. If you’re going to trade your captain and leading goal scorer, this is the kind of package you hope for in return. That said, it’s exciting that Pacioretty is coming back to Montreal for a series of this magnitude.
Vegas Finished With 23 More Points in the Regular Season Than Montreal. Does That Matter Anymore?
BF: I think it does, actually. Price has clearly rounded into form at the right time, but Montreal is still a team that struggled to score all season (they actually allowed seven more goals than they scored over the regular season). A 3-0 overtime record and 5-1 mark in one-goal games this postseason helps, but the Golden Knights are better built to absorb the Canadiens’ grind-it-out playoff style than either the Maple Leafs or Jets were.
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Momentum is a great thing, and Montreal certainly has it, but so does Vegas. They’ve won four straight against a Cup-contending Colorado Avalanche team that hadn’t lost that many in a row all year. And they’ve been here before, advancing to the final four in three of their four years of existence.
MB: I think when you get to this stage, the regular season isn’t so relevant. Especially when the two teams haven’t faced each other all season, so we don’t even really know how the two teams will match-up. Which is kind of fun. The playoffs are a whole different beast. So many people are discounting Montreal’s chances after watching Vegas play Colorado and the style of play that we saw. Understandable, but I don’t think this series is going to be like that.
Montreal plays a different system. Their confidence right now can’t be underestimated either. If the Minnesota Wild was able to push the Golden Knights to seven games, there is no reason the Canadiens can’t do the same. They’re playing with house money and having nothing to lose as the underdogs. That in itself is a dangerous combination.
BF: Vegas in 5
MB: Montreal in 7