Remembering the Canadiens’ 2014 Playoff Run

“What if…?”

It is one of the most mesmerizing questions ever asked, usually when remembering an event that conjures up memories of what happened, or what could have happened had something different happened. In hockey, there are not enough fingers and toes to count the number of times that question has been asked.

What if the play was called offside against the New York Islanders in Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final?

What if Kerry Fraser actually called Wayne Gretzky’s high-stick on Doug Gilmour?

What if Marc Crawford chose Gretzky in the shootout at the 1998 Nagano Olympics?

What if Carey Price hadn’t been hurt?

The Beginning

The year was 2013, and the Montreal Canadiens had just come off an embarrassing first-round exit at the hands of the Ottawa Senators. Even though the Canadiens failed to capitalize on a division crown, first-year general manager Marc Bergevin did not tinker with his lineup, only adding Daniel Brière via free agency. There was a reason he didn’t need to. Head coach Michel Therrien had helped lead the team back to the top of the standings in his first year back in Montreal.

Up front, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher were coming off impressive rookie seasons, while mainstays such as Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, and captain Brian Gionta were continuing to put up points.

Marc Bergevin
Bergevin was looking to take his team to the top in only his second year (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

On the blue line, Andrei Markov had become a very reliable asset in his own zone and had an offensive touch, especially on the power play. Josh Gorges and Alexei Emelin had become a very capable second pair, and P.K. Subban had just won the Norris Trophy.

Of course, the team still lived and died by the play of their goaltender, Carey Price. Despite having one his worst seasons since coming into the league in 2007, he was still one of the top goaltenders in the NHL.

Inauspicious Regular Season

The Canadiens expected to have another great regular season in 2013-14, however, they stumbled out of the gate, with a 10-9-2 record through the middle of November. The team did not seem to have the same camaraderie but were able to turn it around before Christmas. Yet, they still seemed off in January and February.

Thomas Vanek and Mike Weaver were acquired at the trade deadline to help bolster the lineup heading into the playoffs. Vanek scored 15 points in his final 18 games of the regular season and the Canadiens were able to rally to clinch the third spot in the Atlantic Division. This occurred due to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ collapse and the play of Price in net.

The Price is Right

It was only four years prior when Canadiens fans thought Price was on his way out, and Jaroslav Halak was going to be the next number one in Montreal. In the 2013-14 season, Price put up career-best numbers. He went 34-20-5, and posted a 2.32 goals-against average (GAA), along with a .927 save percentage (SV%), tied for third in the NHL. He finished fourth in Vezina voting behind the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Ben Bishop, Colorado Avalanche’s Semyon Varlamov, and the eventual winner, Boston Bruins netminder, Tuukka Rask.

Goaltender Carey Price
Price established himself as one of the best in the game in 2014 (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

It was not just Price’s numbers that were impressive, it was how he looked in net. He had a bad end to the 2013 Playoffs when Price left Game 4 against the Senators with a groin injury. Yet, Price came back rejuvenated and about as confident as he looked in 2011, where he back-boned the Canadiens to Game 7 against a heavily favoured Bruins team that went on to win the Stanley Cup. Heading into the playoffs, the Canadiens looked as confident as their goaltender.

Round 1: Tampa Bay Lightning

The first round was against the second-place Lightning, and between two of the best netminders in the league between Bishop and Price. However, Bishop was injured in the final week of the regular season against the Maple Leafs. Enter Anders Lindback as the Lightning’s starter, and Tampa Bay was in trouble from the get-go.

Short and Sweet

The Canadiens were able to make it an easy four-game sweep against the Lightning. Despite having a shaky Game 1, Price stopped the next 73 of the Lightning’s 79 shots. The blue line was able to hold off Steven Stamkos who, despite scoring a pair of goals in Game 1, was only held to two assists the rest of the series.

It all started with a Game 1 win where Dale Weise picked the top-corner on Lindback late in the first overtime. Weise, who was acquired in a trade with Vancouver in February, only scored six goals all season. He would prove to be a big piece for the Canadiens in the playoffs, both on the scoresheet and in the locker room.

Dale Weise Montreal Canadiens
Dale Weise, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Round 2: Boston Bruins

An old foe met the Canadiens in the second round. The Boston Bruins and the Canadiens met in the playoffs for the 34th time in their storied rivalry. Boston had finished with the best record in the NHL, winning their 13th league title. The series was going to be chippy, with players such as Subban and Gallagher on one end, and Brad Marchand and Shawn Thornton on the other, but nothing less would be expected from a battle between the two clubs.

Subban Stepping Up

Game 1 was a classic Bruins and Canadiens matchup, with physicality, scoring, and overtime to boot. Neither team could bury the winner until Subban’s blast in the second overtime gave the Canadiens the early series lead. It was Subban’s second of the game, scored from almost the exact spot that he scored his first goal of the game in the first period.

PK Subban
P.K. Subban (Eric Bolte-US PRESSWIRE)

Subban is, for lack of a better term, despised in Boston for his antics as well as his skill. Even though he was a Norris winner, he had not been able to establish himself as a dominant playoff performer. This series changed that.

Don’t Poke the Bear (or Weise)

Game 2 was looking great for the Canadiens, as they held a 3-1 lead in the third period. The Bruins, however, mounted a comeback, scoring four unanswered goals to win. The game is most notable for Milan Lucic’s chest-thumping after his empty-net goal, which clearly got under the skin of the Canadiens. Particularly Dale Weise.

Back in Montreal for Game 3, the Canadiens started off well once again with a 2-0 lead. Then, late in the second period, Weise was sprung on a breakaway and beat Rask five-hole to put the Canadiens up by three. On his way to the bench, Weise made sure the Bruins saw him emphatically thumping his chest.

Game 4 saw a goaltending clinic between Rask and Price, where the two made 33 and 34 saves, respectively. However, Rask was able to win the dual with the help of Matt Fraser’s bang-in goal in overtime to tie the series once again.

Back in Boston for a pivotal Game 5, emotions ran high. Special teams paid off for the Bruins early in the second period. Two power-play goals for the Bruins just 32 seconds apart proved to be the difference in the Bruins to the 4-2 win.

However, Lucic needed to stir the pot some more. Late in the game Lucic, from behind the bench no less, flexed his muscles towards Subban, mocking him after the couple of skirmishes the two had during the game. Weise was ready to respond in Game 6. After the buzzer sounded to end the first period, Weise got into it with Lucic, and Weise was sure to show the Bruins forward how big his muscles were.

Stealing the Series

In that Game 6, the Canadiens needed an outstanding performance from their goaltender and Price obliged with a 26-save shutout on home ice. Vanek’s two goals led the offense, and Subban’s goal in the third blew the roof off the Bell Centre. In true Boston-Montreal fashion, they went to Game 7.

Big moments in big games always come from the most unlikely people, and of all people, it was Weise who stepped up again for Montreal, scoring his second goal of the series to put the Canadiens up early. Pacioretty and Iginla traded goals in the second period, setting up a tense third period.

The Bruins had chance after chance but Price was there each time, even with some help from his goal post. It felt as though the Bruins were not going to break through. Brière’s fluke goal late in the third helped seal the 3-1 win.

Lucic and Weise met in the handshake line, and it was safe to say Lucic was not too pleased with Weise’s antics in the series. According to multiple sources, Lucic told Weise “I’m going to [expletive] kill you next year.” (From ‘Don’t Worry, Twitter Knew What Milan Lucic Said During Post-Series Handshake’, HuffingtonPost – 5/16/14) This obviously outraged Canadiens’ fans and players alike, showing that even though the series was over, the rivalry was only growing.

In the final two games of the series, Price stopped 55 of the Bruins’ 56 shots. He was almost unbeatable. The Canadiens outlasted the Bear and were heading to the Conference Final.

Round 3: New York Rangers

Four wins away from the Stanley Cup Final for the second time since 2010, Montreal met the New York Rangers, who finished second in the Metropolitan Division. Again, the matchup was going to be between two protectors of the pipes, with Price against Henrik Lundqvist.

“We’ve Lost Our Best Player”

Game 1 started with both teams earning great chances, and Price and Lundqvist both made outstanding saves. However, the Rangers were able to get two in the first, carrying the lead into the second.

At the 3:15 mark of the second period… catastrophe.

Chris Kreider found a loose puck in the neutral zone, and chipped it passed Emelin and went in on goal. While being chased down by Emelin, Kreider lost his balance and went careening into Price, who was holding his knee and not getting up.

When Kreider fell, he slid into Price’s leg. His right skate got caught on the right post, causing his knee to hyperextend. Price tried to fight it and continue on, but he was not the same. The damage had been done.

To add insult to injury, Kreider scored on a breakaway, underneath Price’s right leg, to give the Rangers a 3-1 lead.

After the loss, the team announced that Price was done for the playoffs with an undisclosed lower-body injury, though everyone knew it was his MCL. Therrien said it best when talking to the media, “We’ve lost our best player.” (from ‘Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Carey Price out of Eastern Final with injury’, The Star – 5/19/14)

Tokarski Tries to Save the Day

The Canadiens decided to go with Dustin Tokarski in Game 2 instead of backup Peter Budaj. Tokarski had solid numbers on a sub-par Hamilton Bulldogs team, going 20-16-3, with a 2.38 GAA and .919 SV% in the AHL. He played well in Game 2, allowing two goals. Yet, he was clearly outmatched by Lundqvist, who stole the show, making 40 stops in the win.

Despite being down 2-0, the Canadiens tried to come back and their rookie goaltender put in an outstanding effort in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden. Tokarski stopped 35 of 37 shots and helped keep the Canadiens in the game, forcing overtime, when Galchenyuk’s first goal of the postseason came early in the first overtime.

Overtime was reached once again in Game 4, and Tokarski once again went save for save with Lundqvist. However, Martin St. Louis’ was able to snipe Tokarski to put the Canadiens on the brink.

Nails in the Coffin

The Canadiens came out with a strong effort in Game 5, chasing Lundqvist after five goals en route to a 7-4 win to stay alive.

Despite the offensive onslaught in Game 5, the Habs fell flat in Game 6, only mustering up 18 shots. It was a frustrating affair, where they only had five shots in the third period, and the Rangers eliminated the Canadiens by a score of 1-0.

Even though filling Price’s shoes is no small task, Tokarski did everything he could, only giving up 13 goals in his five games, only two more than Lundqvist did over that stretch.

Reflection

To remember how close they came is disheartening. The Canadiens dominated the Lightning, worked over the best team in the league in Boston, and, with a rookie goaltender, held their own against the Rangers. The players who played big roles will be remembered for a long time. Brière, who only scored 25 points in the regular season, played inspired hockey in the postseason. Vanek has been arguably the Canadiens’ best deadline acquisition of the Bergevin-era, and Pacioretty planted the seeds to becoming a leader. Subban proved he was a bonafide superstar, and despite the injury, Price further established himself as an all-world goaltender.

Fans still wonder, in a perfect world, what could have happened? The Rangers lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games, but a Carey Price vs. Jonathan Quick matchup would have been insane. However, as the saying goes, “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts…” Price would not have been hurt, they would have moved passed the Rangers and earned the chance to hang a 25th Stanley Cup banner from the Bell Centre rafters.

Aftermath

Price came back the next season looking better than ever. He posted career-best numbers in all categories and became the first goaltender to win the Jennings, Lester B. Pearson (now known as the Ted Lindsay Award), Vezina, and Hart Trophies in the same season. However, the Canadiens were bounced in the second round by the Lightning, who had Bishop in net.

In 2015-16, Price re-aggravated his knee injury and missed the majority of the season. The team began to fall apart after that, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012. That offseason, Subban was traded to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber, and the Canadiens returned to the playoffs just to be knocked out by the Rangers again, in six games.

Brendan Gallagher
Brendan Gallagher, along with Weise and Price, are the only three players remaining from the 2014 playoff run. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens have not been back to the postseason since. Price’s injuries, mismanagement from Bergevin and lack of production has sent the team into a quasi rebuild. Things seem to be looking up for the now younger Montreal team, but it may still be some time before they capture the magic that occurred back in the spring of 2014.