The Montreal Canadiens have managed to overcome their underdog status during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs because they have been getting contributions from everyone in the lineup.
Of course, their current seven-game win streak can largely be attributed to the stellar goaltending of Carey Price, the team’s four stalwarts on defense and the Stanley Cup-winning veterans that general manager Marc Bergevin acquired in the offseason and at the trade deadline. But for the second postseason in a row, the Habs are getting a major boost from their young players and it’s not just how much they are producing but that they are also delivering in key moments when it matters most.
Déjà vu for Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki
Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki contributed eight goals and 11 points to Montreal’s unexpected success in the Toronto postseason bubble last year and are up to their same tricks again in 2020-21. Twenty-year-old Kotkaniemi has four goals while 21-year-old Suzuki has contributed eight points in 11 games so far. Both scored overtime winners against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round and both are playing like top-six centremen despite struggling at times with the grind of a condensed 56-game regular season.
It was the play of his young centremen during the 2019-20 playoffs that encouraged Bergevin to be aggressive during the offseason and better surround his budding stars. Now the Canadiens are back in the final four for the first time since 2014 with Kotkaniemi and Suzuki playing their best at the most opportune time. It’s still hard to believe that the Finn was a healthy scratch for Game 1 against Toronto.
“I’m happy for him. I really like the way he’s played since the beginning of the playoffs,” interim head coach Dominique Ducharme said of Kotkaniemi. “I felt that he needed a good week of practice before starting the postseason. I’m happy to see him get rewarded. He understood what was happening. He worked and made an effort.”
Cole Caufield Coming in Clutch
Speaking of sitting in the press box, Cole Caufield didn’t see his first playoff action until Game 3 against the Maple Leafs. But that seems like such a distant memory now because there isn’t a player on the Canadiens who embraces the big moments more than the 20-year-old rookie. If a crucial goal is needed, then you can bet that he’ll somehow be involved.
Case and point, he set up Suzuki in overtime in Game 5 to extend the series against Toronto and sent a perfect cross-ice pass to Tyler Toffoli for the series-winning goal in overtime of Game 4 against the Winnipeg Jets in round two. Not to mention the two dramatic overtime goals he scored late in the regular season to help get the Canadiens into the playoffs, to begin with.
Caufield has developed great chemistry with Suzuki and Toffoli which bodes well for the present and the future.
“Cole and I both look up to him,” Suzuki said of Toffoli. He knows what it takes to win, and he’s done a great job this year. He’s our most successful producer. He’s the guy we always go to when we have questions and we just try to take anything that we can. He’s definitely open to hear what me and Cole have to say, too. Just as a line, we work really well together.”
Enter Alexander Romanov, Get Well Soon Jake Evans
Heading into the semifinals, the attention now shifts to rookie defender Alexander Romanov who is finally getting his chance to make an impact with Jeff Petry out of the lineup.
Like his aforementioned teammates, Romanov brings a contagious youthful energy and enthusiasm to the ice that can give the whole bench a lift. He’s fearless too and shines brightest when the spotlight is biggest. Sounds familiar right?
It would be remiss not to mention Jake Evans and his inspiring postseason effort before suffering a concussion against the Jets. He was playing so well that he took Tomas Tatar’s place on the top line with Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. His relentless forecheck and aggressive style of play is sorely missed. These playoffs have been his coming out party and fingers crossed he can return to game action against the Golden Knights.
Rising to the occasion is what great players do so maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising to see these highly touted prospects playing their best when the stakes are highest, but it sure is fun to watch.
Melissa has been covering the Montreal Canadiens for The Hockey Writers since March of 2020. She is also THW’s Social Media Community Manager and a co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly show produced by THW. In 2006, she spearheaded the social media initiatives for Tennis Canada and Rogers Cup and was the primary person responsible for their upkeep for over 10 years. She has written articles for multiple tennis websites and interviewed the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. While her career in sports started in tennis, her first love has always been hockey. She has a journalism degree from Concordia University.