With the Montreal Canadiens back home in the friendly confines of the Bell Centre and looking to take an almost-insurmountable 3-0 series lead, forward Eric Staal did the unthinkable. He wired home a point shot on the power play in overtime. Game over. Series soon to be.
This isn’t a prediction of the future of what’s going to happen come Sunday night when the Montreal Canadiens host the Winnipeg Jets for Game 3 of their second-round series to decide the North Division. Instead it’s a flashback to 2006, when Staal’s Carolina Hurricanes began the road to recovery en route to eliminating the Canadiens in four straight games and eventually capturing the Stanley Cup.
Staal Leads Hurricanes Past Canadiens
The No. 7-seeded Habs had been that close to taking a chokehold in the series, even taking a 1-0 lead in the game on a second-period Richard Zednik goal. The rest is history, with Rod Brind’Amour tying the game up in the third before Staal ushered in the beginning of the end by beating goalie Cristobal Huet. With exception to a dominant, series-opening 6-1 win on the part of the Canadiens on the road, each game from there on out was decided by a single goal, signaling just how close the Canadiens were that postseason to knocking off the team that would go on to win it all. They then proceeded to miss the playoff altogether in 2007.
The Canadiens should look back to that series as proof of how fleeting success can be. Granted, they probably don’t need a reminder, with the Habs having missed the playoffs in three of the last six seasons, technically four of six as they only made them in 2020 because of a global pandemic. They also finished with fewer wins than the fifth-place Calgary Flames this season, hanging onto the final spot for dear life down the stretch.
So, to a certain extent, the Canadiens are playing with house money here, but that doesn’t mean they should take where they are for granted. Sure, this Canadiens season is officially a success regardless of how the series against the Jets turns out, but there’s no reason to pump the brakes, especially when you’ve got your opposition where you want them. You would think it goes without saying and yet the same thing that happened to the Canadiens in 2006, losing a series in which they won the first two games on the road, happened again in 2011 against the Boston Bruins, who again went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Saku Koivu’s Freak Eye Injury
If for nothing else, Canadiens fans probably remember that 2006 series against the Hurricanes for the eye injury then-captain Saku Koivu sustained in the very same game as Staal’s overtime winner. The parallels are undeniable, even if they’re to a greater extent with regard to Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares’ freak injury from last series, instead of Mark Scheifele’s suspension-resulting hit on Jake Evans from Game 1 this one.
The Maple Leafs, despite winning the three games immediately following the game in which the incident took place, ultimately failed to rally around the loss of Tavares. The Canadiens have to learn from the more immediate past and what transpired 15 years ago now, even though, as one might predict, not a single member of that Canadiens teams is still around. Staal is, though.
This is effectively why general manager Marc Bergevin acquired Staal from the Buffalo Sabres in the first place. Impressively, Staal has found another gear to his game as well, with six points (one goal) in eight playoff games after scoring just three (two goals) in 21 games with the Canadiens during the regular season. It would have been unrealistic to assume Staal would provide the offensive punch he has, all things considered. After all, he had just 10 points in 32 games with the Sabres before the trade.
Staal’s Stanley Cup-Winning Experience
Hence Staal’s Stanley Cup-winning experience, on which Bergevin has loaded up this season. However, over the course of the postseason, during which teams always say they need to take it game by game, the focus for the Canadiens must be on Game 3 against the Jets at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens can’t let this opportunity slip away like they have in the past, especially with the Jets’ top scorer now suspended. Doing so wouldn’t just be a disappointment, but a failure to respond to Evans’ injury.
It sounds callous in principle, but that was one of the primary talking points the day after Game 1, with defenseman Jeff Petry saying: “We know what we need to do to make them pay. It’s not going out there and trying to make that same hit on [Scheifele]. It’s about making sure that we play the right way and remain focused on our goal and that’s to win the series.”
Staal seems like the right man to help in that sense, having expressed dissatisfaction with how the Tavares injury had been handled by the “Code,” with Nick Foligno immediately afterward challenging Corey Perry to a fight.
“To follow [the injury] up with that, I didn’t love it, but maybe that’s what they needed to do to kind of get over it and get it out of the way, but, seeing the replay… it couldn’t be any more freak… Obviously, we hope and pray John is feeling better,” Staal said the day after the incident.
For the record, Justin Williams, who was the one who accidentally high-sticked Koivu 15 years ago, didn’t have to answer the bell for the accident, as that too was a freak injury. Thankfully, Koivu rebounded in 2006-07 by scoring a career-high 22 goals, 53 assists and 75 points to lead the Canadiens. While similar statistical production from Evans is likely out of the question, the hope for a quick and full recovery remains the same for a player who had seemingly just found his niche on the team. The secondary hope is also for the Habs to see this thing through. This is where Staal’s experience pays off.