Against All Odds Pt. II

Things are about to get really hot in the desert, but more specifically, on the ice at T-Mobile Arena on Monday evening, as the National Hockey League second semi-final is about to begin between two of the hottest teams; the Montreal Canadien and Vegas Golden Knights.

It’s quite a story for both franchises, as both are riding large winning streaks. The Golden Knights performed a reverse sweep of the 2020-21 President Trophy winning Colorado Avalanche, handing them a four-game winning streak.

And probably the hottest team in the league, the Canadiens, who were down 1-3 to the North Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs, came back and won that series in a pivotal game seven. They then proceeded to sweep the Winnipeg Jets in four games, giving them seven wins in a row.

In this article, you’ll have a breakdown for each team of what to look for in this series.

An interesting side note is that since the Golden Knights’ franchise entered the NHL prior to the 2017-18 season, these two teams have only faced off against each other six times.

As a Canadiens fan, I’m proud to say that they have the edge, with a 5-1-0 record, and a perfect 3-0-0 at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

Keys for Vegas

What better way to start then between the pipes at their tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. Fleury overtook the starting role this past season largely due to the fact he remained healthy, something that has plagued the 36-year-old much throughout his career.

Contrary to seasons past when he had the offensive support that he did back in his Pittsburgh Penguin days, he had to come up big when necessary. And he certainly accomplished that, finishing the season with a 26-10-0 record, with a career high in goals-against-average of 1.98 and save percentage of .928, and why not throw in six shutouts.

These numbers were so good, top three in the league in most of those categories, and he was nominated for the Vezina Award for the league’s top goaltender for the first time in his career.

And now in the postseason, he’s still on a roll, off to an 8-4 record, 1.91 goals-against-average and a .923 save percentage, some of the best numbers in his postseason career.

The Golden Knights also happen to have a strong defensive corps, which is what helped them allow the league-lowest 122 goals this past season. Fleury and Lehner together won the Jennings Trophy for lowest goals against total. Vegas also had 40 wins, among the top in the NHL.

In their top defensive duo, you have the experience of Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo. Martinez won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014, and Pietrangelo won it more recently in 2019 as captain of the St. Louis Blues.

They then have a balanced corps that includes Shea Theodore, Nick Holden, Zach Whitecloud and Brayden McNabb.

One of the stronger areas Vegas does have going for them in the postseason is their balanced attack. Similar in style to the Canadiens, they do have four lines that can all cause some degree of damage, but it’s more so their top six that’s really dangerous.

Captain Mark Stone, arguably one of the league’s best at the 200-foot game, has been successful with Chandler Stephenson and Max Pacioretty.

Pacioretty, a former Canadien, has been ripping it since getting back into the lineup. The winger led his team in goals throughout the regular season, but after missing the first six games of the first round against the Minnesota Wild, he is currently on a seven-game point streak, seeing him have four goals and eight points in that span.

The strongest line combination for them is the line of William Karlsson flanked by wingers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.

Karlsson is currently leading his team in points with 11, and Marchessault is on top with six goals, and the trio with Smith included, have proved a tough line to face in this year’s playoffs. Marchessault also had a hat trick in their game five match versus the Avalanche., an impressive feat considering the steady play of netminder Philipp Grubauer on the other end.

Last but not least, we’ll look at the coaching, because that does help with a bit of flair behind the bench having a boss who knows what he’s doing. Peter DeBoer has been an NHL head coach since way back in the 2008-09 season when he broke in behind the bench of the Florida Panthers. Along the way, he has also coached the New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks before landing his current position. Twice in his career has he gone the distance and made it to the Cup finals, but unfortunately both times, he came up short; first in 2011-12 when he lost to the Kings, and more recently in 2015-16 when his Sharks squad lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, their first of back-to-back.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Keys for Montreal

Like Vegas, Montreal has been helped heavily due in part to their goaltending. Throughout the year, the Canadiens had a strong tandem with former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner Carey Price and first-year Hab Jake Allen between the pipes.

Price has been struggling the past few seasons since winning the Hart, Vezina, Jennings and Ted Lindsay (league MVP voted by the players) back in 2014-15, failing to regain his elite status as the top (or among the top) goaltenders in the entire league.

One of the other issues that’s plagued Price was his health, falling to injuries several times, and at times, for extended periods of time. The same happened this past year, and he was in and out of the lineup, and limited to starting only 25 of the team’s 56 games. However he did come out with 12 wins, his numbers were nothing to write home about, with a 2.62 goals-against-average and just passing the .900 barrier with a .901 save percentage.

That was a problem the Canadiens brass, led by general manager Marc Bergevin, wanted to address heading into this past season. Having had a rotation of backup goaltenders that never really panned out for them, they were able to acquire and then sign former St. Louis Blue Jake Allen to a two-year contract for an average salary of $2.875 million per season.

Although Allen’s numbers weren’t amazing either, he was able to keep his composure, especially when inserted into the number one goaltending role. Through 27 games this season, he finished with an 11-12-5 record, a 2.68 goals-against and a .907 save percentage.

The tandem was able to work well enough together to get the Canadiens a playoff position as the last team to qualify.

However, so far, since the Canadiens had their backs against the wall facing elimination at the hands of the Maple Leafs that Carey Price became CAREY PRICE; Olympic, World Cup, World Junior gold medalist – he became a brick wall between the pipes.

He currently is sitting on a seven-game winning streak, where he’s got a goals-against of 1.64, a staggering .943 save percentage and a shutout that he recorded in game two against Winnipeg.

In the Habs/Jets series, it was to be a goaltending battle, especially after Winnipeg’s goaltender, 2020 Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck, had allowed only six goals in their first round sweep of the Connor McDavid-led Edmonton Oilers… but it was not.

No disrespect to Hellebuyck, but it was a Carey show from start to finish, when he only allowed six goals through four games, including three in the first one alone. Price is on his game, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down at all, a welcome sign for Montreal fans and their team alike.

Defensively, the Canadiens played a rotation of several defenders throughout the regular season, led by captain Shea Weber and included were the pairing of Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson. Petry had seen some of the best hockey in his career and was in Norris Trophy conversation until his game kind of slowed down on him. First year Canadien Edmundson, who had won the Cup with Pietrangelo back in 2019 with St. Louis, had a great first campaign, and led the entire league in plus-minus.

Another fun bright spot for Montreal is the play of rookie Alexander Romanov. The former second-round draft pick played almost the full season, lacing them up for 54 games, registering a goal and six points.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

At the trade deadline, Bergevin and company also went out to try and bolster their blue-line by adding two experienced defensemen in Jon Merrill from the Detroit Red Wings and Erik Gustaffson from the Philadelphia Flyers.

The moves were primarily made for adding depth, but Merrill struggled, going pointless in 13 games and a woeful minus-11. Gustaffson played only five games, but managed to register a couple of helpers.

Come playoffs however, ‘Gus’ has been a pivotal part of the backend, and since being inserted into the lineup for game five against Toronto, the team has won each game. He’s been contributing offensively too, scoring the first goal in the series-clinching game against Winnipeg, as well as two more assists. He’s been placed on the power play, and with only one small blemish giving up the puck to a short-handed goal against Winnipeg, he’s been a big asset to their success.

On the contrary for veterans Petry and Weber, both have recorded three assists apiece, and Petry injured his hand in the third game against the Jets, leaving his status as questionable come game one against the Golden Knights.

Hopefully he can return and the pillars can help ease the workload of Price. We’ll see if they can contain the speed of Vegas.

David Kirouac/Getty Images North America

On the attack for Montreal, it’s a balanced four lines that have proved extremely difficult to play against, especially as of late. First year Hab Tyler Toffoli, who won the Cup back in 2014, helped lead the team with a whopping 28 goals and 44 points during the regular season and is continuing to lead them in the postseason with four goals and 10 points, including two game winners, both done against the Jets last round, including the series clincher in overtime in game four.

Three other players have also scored four goals for Montreal; Nick Suzuki, who was actually drafted by Vegas, Joel Armia, who also has two short-handed goals (both in the same game), and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was scratched for the first game of the playoffs way back when, has been coming up clutch, too.

One thing Montreal wanted to address in last year’s offseason was to get veterans and experience, and in addition to Toffoli, Edmundson and Allen, they also went out to get players like Corey Perry, Josh Anderson, and Michael Frolik to name just a few. A lot of the players brought in also happen to have something in common; most have hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup at least once in their careers.

Perry, who scored nine goals during the season, has come up at the key moments, with three goals and six points in these playoffs and is help guide the younger crop. His line of him, fellow veteran and past Cup winner Eric Staal and Armia have formed one of the unlikeliest, but strongest lines throughout the league.

David Kirouac/Getty Images North America

And with all the veterans and older guys also comes the young crop or next generation of future Habs. Not only Suzuki, Kotkaniemi and Romanov, there has also been the standout play of young Jake Evans, who had been helping the team up until he got knocked unconscious in the first game against Winnipeg, and we all know about that event by now.

Last but not least, there has been the play of Bilbo, the baby faced phenom and the future of the Canadiens franchise, Cole Caufield. And what can you say about him that isn’t personified as our future in one little 20-year-old from Wisconsin? Caufield, who won the Hobey Baker Award this year, an NCAA title and World Junior gold, scored two game winners with the Laval Rocket in two games after signing his first professional contract, and then joined the Montreal Canadiens, all since September…

And then when he did join Montreal, he was quiet for the first four games, until in his fifth game when he scored the overtime game-winner for his first career goal. He wound up with four goals and an assist in 10 games with the big club this season.

Now in the postseason, he was also scratched for the first two games against Toronto, and the Montreal fans were completely left scratching their heads. I think even the players were doing the same.

But once he got his chance, Caufield made sure the brass was aware he is elite and deserves to be in the lineup. Through 10 games, he’s racked up four assists, including an assist on two of the overtime game winners (Suzuki in game five against Toronto and Toffoli in game four against Winnipeg).

Francois Lacasse/Getty Images North America

As this series is now underway in Paradise, Nevada, it’s going to be interesting to see which players for each shows up. Both are riding highs and lengthy winning streaks (Vegas at four, Montreal at seven), but in hockey these days, one team HAS to win, and one HAS to lose.

As a hockey fan, I’m generally excited for the series in general, and as a Canadiens fan, I’m super excited to see Montreal doing so well. They’ve defied many odds en route to where they are now, so anything additional would be just gravy.

However deep down, I am routing for them to get to the Stanley Cup Final.

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