Vegas – Montreal: A series Full Of Storylines
If 100 NHL fans were polled at random at the beginning of the playoffs, asked which potential matchups they were most hoping to see, the results would have yielded responses like Colorado – Tampa Bay, Toronto – Boston, anything involving Connor McDavid, etc. All of these series that never were would be filled with high-speed, highly-skilled hockey, but more importantly, with drama and storylines. While hockey fans will always desire higher scoring and closely contested matchups, nothing reminds the viewer that the players are embracing a new level of competitiveness more than crushing hits and fights after the whistles. The bulk of these moments of aggression on the ice are not often spontaneous in nature, but instead are driven by narratives off the ice. In that same poll I mentioned in the beginning, I would be willing to bet Vegas – Montreal would not even fall within the top 10 most anticipated potential series. While at first glance the series may not spark excitement, there are a number of narratives to follow throughout the semi-final that should make for some very electrifying moments between the league’s oldest franchise and its youngest (to compete in a game).
The Underdog Story
Montreal finished with the fewest points (59) of any playoff team to qualify and had fewer wins (24) than the team that stands fifth in its division (Calgary, 26). A first-round matchup against age-old rival Toronto was all but written off when it came time for analysts to pick their winners. Entering as severe underdogs, Montreal fell down 3-1 in the series, but managed to dethrone the regular-season North Division champions in seven games. Heading into round two on no rest, the Canadiens flew to Winnipeg to face a Jets team that had just swept Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. Predictions were made, and once again, the Canadiens were expected to lose. Four games later, and a well-rested Montreal team now flies to Vegas for round three to take on the team that finished tied for first in the regular season. Montreal being ‘built for the playoffs’ is a narrative that has been pushed frequently throughout the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as has Montreal being ‘underdogs’, and still if the Canadiens manage to upset the Golden Knights, it will have to be considered their biggest giant slain thus far.
After falling just short in the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season, the Golden Knights were seeking more elite scoring talent at the same time that Montreal’s general manager Marc Bergevin began his famous “reset”. The result was a trade that sent Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty to the Golden Knights in exchange for Tomas Tatar and the newly drafted Nick Suzuki. This trade will likely be remembered for Suzuki’s team change, as the 21-year-old is developing into a star center for Montreal, but the contributions of the other two pieces can not be ignored. Tatar, while spending most of his time out of the lineup for this year’s playoff run, has been a focal point on Montreal’s first line that has been amongst the Expected Goals For leaders since he was acquired. Pacioretty stepped into a role on the opposite wing to Mark Stone for Vegas and has been nothing short of excellent, averaging over one point-per-game this year for the Golden Knights. Now, Pacioretty faces his former team and will return to the Bell Center for just the fourth time since his departure. He’s been outstanding through seven playoff games and will be a key for Vegas should they win the series. Expect boos, or maybe applause (you never know with Habs fans). Regardless, expect both sides of the trade to be featured heavily on the scoresheet.
French Canadian Goaltending
Carey Price is the undisputed king of the net in Montreal. Marc-Andre Fleury is a legend in his own right and was born and raised in Quebec. Coming to Montreal has always meant something to Fleury, and he is having one of the best analytical seasons of his career, recently being nominated as a Vezina Trophy finalist. After a shaky regular season, Price has proven again that he can turn it on when things matter the most, leading the playoffs in Save Percentage and second among remaining goalies in Goals Against Average (1 – Marc-Andre Fleury). Both goalies have been unbelievable through the first two rounds and round three could end up being determined by the play between the pipes. It will be a battle worth keeping track of.
In a league where it is widely believed that a great team requires a star first-line center, neither Vegas nor Montreal possesses this piece. Sure, Suzuki may end up a bonafide number one center in the future. As it currently stands, the teams are headed down the middle by Phillip Danault (Montreal) and Chandler Stephenson (Vegas). Both Danault and Stephenson are not key offensive contributors for their squads, however, the two play integral roles in shutting down the stars lining up against them. Danault held Auston Matthews to one goal in seven games in the first round, and held Winnipeg’s first line relatively scoreless, while Stephenson held Nathan MacKinnon to just two goals in six games in round two. It will be fascinating to watch the two square off head-to-head, as Danault attempts to slow Pacioretty and Stone and Stephenson try to swing momentum away from the forechecking of Brendan Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen.
Ignoring individual fandom, while unexpected, the Vegas – Montreal series is chalk full of narratives that will render the series exciting and worth the watch. Two teams with similar roster construction and play styles who took drastically differing paths to arrive in the third round. No matter what narrative you choose to follow, what a series it will be.