Still Talkin’ Habs: Canadiens complete stunning series comeback, beat Leafs 3-1 in Game 7

When did you start to believe?

Was it Paul Byron’s diving shorthanded game-winning goal in Game 1? Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki’s overtime combination in Game 5? Carey Price standing on his head in OT in Game 6?

Or was hope just too hard to bear as you nervously bit your fingernails down to the bone while the clock ran down and struck midnight on the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 last night?

In the end, the Montreal Canadiens shocked the hockey world with a 3-1 victory to move on to face the Winnipeg Jets in the second round of the NHL playoffs.

The Habs displayed the intangibles that their general manager Marc Bergevin has long said are the difference between winning and losing this time of year.

To a man, the Canadiens simply wanted it more while the Leafs played as though the weight of 17 years of playoff futility was weighing upon their shoulders.

In a one-night, winner-take-all matchup, the character of the group was a deciding factor.

But it wasn’t the difference.

Carey Price has often been criticized for not stealing a game. When it mattered most though, the 10 million-dollar man stole a series for the Habs.

If you look back on the seven games as a whole, of course the overtime game-winners will live long in the memory of fans. Especially because of the young, promising players who scored them.

But between the two-on-one toe save on Mitch Marner in Game 1... The miraculous, desperation stick save on Jason Spezza in Game 3... The point-blank saves on William Nylander and Zach Hyman in Game 5... Standing on his head while his team got outshot 13-2 in overtime in Game 6... 58 minutes of shutout hockey in Game 7... Price has been the razor thin line between winning and losing and has hopefully silenced his critics for the last time.

Imagine you had to create an NHL goaltender in a lab. Price ticks every single box. Tall but not lanky? Check. Freakish athleticism? Check. Mechanical positioning? Check. Calm demeanor? Check. Oh, and he’s one of the best puck handlers of his generation. Just for kicks.

I have often been called a Price apologist while he has struggled over the past couple of regular seasons.

He has never been able to live up to that impossible standard of 2014-15 when he won the Vezina and Hart trophy, arguably the greatest regular season we’ve ever seen from a goaltender.

During those down times, he has certainly not lived up to the billing of the highest-paid goaltender in hockey.

But those mid-season moments seem all that more insignificant now. My point has always been that it doesn’t really matter what he does throughout the 82-game schedule. Price earns his contract in the playoffs.

Then he goes ahead and does that, against the Habs historic rival and the highest-scoring team in the North division this season. His game is the closest now to what it was six years ago.

Oh, and he’s borderline prophetic. Price was steadfast in his belief in his teammates after going down 3-1, saying he had no doubt that the Canadiens would start finding the back of the net.

They responded by outscoring the Leafs 10-6 the final three games to put Toronto in their rear-view mirror while Price put their top scorers in his back pocket.

When asked post-game whether this is the best hockey he has ever played, in typical Price fashion he deflected, saying “This is the best team game we’ve played this season.” And he’d be right about that too.

The Habs picked the perfect time to put together their most complete 60-minute effort of the playoffs.

While the excitement around these playoffs has mainly been focused on the youth movement up front spearheaded by Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, it was the veterans who carried the Canadiens over the finish line last night.

The line of Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher and fellow youngster Jake Evans were dogged in their defensive effort against Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

The top four on the blueline spent less time in their zone as they have all series, killing plays while denying the Leafs the middle of the ice and effectively moving the puck up to their forwards.

Eric Staal created the neutral zone turnover for Gallagher’s opener and Corey Perry took the eventual game-winner off the knee on the power play.

While it wasn’t flawless, the older guys played their best with elimination on the line.

The Leafs collapse will be dissected to death by the Canadian media market from now until October.

So, instead of explaining the past, let’s look ahead to their upcoming series against the Winnipeg Jets starting Wednesday night.

Connor Hellebuyck is the reigning Vezina trophy winner and surely won’t give up a goal like opener Jack Campbell did to Gallagher last night.

While injuries weren’t the main reason the Leafs lost to the Habs, John Tavares’ absence surely helped the Canadiens young centremen grow into their own respective games.

It will be down the middle that the series with the Jets will be decided. Danault’s line will face the Scheifele line, that’s a given.

Suzuki’s line will have to deal with one of the best defensive trios in hockey in Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton.

The task won’t be any easier for Kotkaniemi against Paul Stastny and company.

I’ve asked this question several times this season: what were your expectations for this incarnation of the Montreal Canadiens?

For this year to have been considered a success, I believed that the Habs had to win a playoff round.

A tangible step forward for their young players to build confidence for the future wars to come. Against all the odds, that objective has been met.

What can they do for an encore? Who knows? Maybe they can turn that newly found belief into a dream run. As the past 16 months and seven games have shown us, anything is possible.

PLAYER RATINGS

GOALTENDER

Carey Price – 10/10

Two sprawling saves on Hyman stood out. Terrific right pad save on Nylander in the third. Looked huge in his net and was super aggressive challenging Leafs shooters. Owned real estate in their heads. As he does when he’s at his best, made the difficult look easy. Deserved the shutout.

DEFENCEMEN

Shea Weber – 8/10

A relatively quiet night from him both in terms of physicality and offense. But played a very simple game well. Didn’t hold onto the puck for too long and kept it moving in the defensive zone. Passing was better again and has improved the latter half of the series. Survived at times in his own end, but did a great job winning individual battles in front of Price. Crease clearer.

Ben Chiarot – 8/10

Went through the wars. Took an extremely painful shot off the inside of the left skate. Nearly knocked himself out along the boards trying to retrieve a dump in. Still led the team in ice time at just under 28 minutes. Like Weber, boxed out really well in front of his goalie. His stick was disruptive and he looked relatively at ease with different defensive partners.

Jeff Petry – 8/10

Tied with Weber for the most hits by defencemen with four. Did a great job stepping up at the blueline, used his recovery speed to close any problems behind him. Rarely galloped through the neutral zone with the puck on his stick, but instead played with poise passing the puck through the neutral zone. Didn’t necessarily stand out, but was just solid altogether. Robbed by Campbell’s glove in the slot on an odd-man rush.

Joel Edmundson – 8/10

Probably the Canadiens most aggressive defenseman last night. Pinched down the wall very well and rarely got caught. Like Romanov makes those smart three-foot passes in his zone to get out of trouble look extremely simple. Kept Price’s line of sight clear and is the master of getting in the way to slow down the forecheck.

Erik Gustafsson – 7/10

You cannot stop Gustafsson, you can only hope to contain him. Despite playing just over 10 minutes, he probably played his best game as a Habs. Relatively error-free hockey. His sense of space and his passing particularly stood out. Secondary assist on Perry’s game-winner. Controlled the tempo on the power play. His stick was active as well. Nice to see him seize the opportunity.

Brett Kulak – 6/10

Not as dynamic as Gustafsson but he was good. Skated really well and fought hard in one-on-one battles. Nothing in particular stood out, but didn’t put his team in a bad spot and looked relatively comfortable next to multiple partners.

FORWARDS

Phillip Danault – 9/10

Earned his contract extension the last three games. Didn’t give Matthews much of a sniff whatsoever. Super aggressive on the penalty kill. His stick was terrific, consistently disrupted any potential danger in his own zone. Won the majority of his faceoffs as well. His effort level, his commitment particularly stood out. Picked up an assist on Toffoli’s empty netter to cap an impressive evening. Had some pizza post-game.

Jake Evans – 8/10

What a moment for the Toronto native. His insertion into the lineup turned the Danault line into an elite-level checking trio. Brought speed both on the forecheck and the backcheck. Didn’t do much of anything offensively, but competed extremely hard and went to the front of Campbell’s net regularly. Was moved around quite a bit in the first and second, but simply played the same way. Has become a swiss army knife for the team. Really solid on the penalty kill as well.

Brendan Gallagher – 7/10

Led the forwards with four shots on goal. His goal went in largely thanks to a whiff by Campbell, but he still made the play to make it happen. Played his greatest hits: went to the front of the net, worked extremely hard. Won important battles along the boards to get the puck out of his zone. His passing left something to be desired, but all in all, did his job well.

Nick Suzuki – 8/10

Definitely didn’t expect him to lead the forwards in blocked shots with four, including a massive one on Hyman in front of the net. Was disruptive in his own zone. Never panicked making decisions with the puck on his stick. Not sure if his shot was going in if it hadn’t hit Perry in the knee but who cares. Didn’t look like the Game 7 moment fazed him at all. Didn’t get too many chances to create offensively, but made smart plays to set up rush chances.

Tyler Toffoli – 7/10

Put the game to bed with a few minutes left with his empty-netter. Missed a glorious chance in the slot on the power play just before Perry’s goal. But seems to have found his spot in the bumper spot on the man advantage as he kept the puck moving in the build-up to the game-winner. One of the few who looked like he struggled at times with the pace of the game. One bad turnover exiting his zone nearly led to a Hyman goal.

Cole Caufield – 7/10

More of a distributor than a shooter in Game 7. Drew the holding penalty that led to Perry’s goal. On the power play made quick, incisive decisions with the puck on his stick, problem-solving his way out of trouble to maintain possession. Great pass on the rush should have been a Petry goal, but stopped by Campbell. His ability to sense how much time and space he has continues to stand out. Was aggressive at the blueline defensively. Another step forward.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 6/10

Won 60 per cent of his faceoffs. Wasn’t particularly noticeable offensively except for a deflected shot on Campbell in the first few minutes of the game. But didn’t lack confidence in all three zones. Physical in his own zone and battled hard. Solid on the forecheck. Desperate on the backcheck.

Paul Byron – 6/10

Nearly set up an easy goal for Anderson on a 2-on-1 but the puck rolled off his stick. Like Kotkaniemi liked his speed on the forecheck. Committed on the penalty kill. Doing a lot of the hard work that Lehkonen does when he’s in the lineup. Quiet offensively, but dogged defensively. Notice a trend here?

Josh Anderson – 6/10

Only getting two hits tells me he’s dealing with some kind of upper-body injury. Would also explain his erratic shooting of late. Had a clear-cut chance just roll off his stick on an odd-man rush. His best chance was a drive to the net that Campbell poked away. Skated extremely well, but his decisions with the puck were puzzling at times.

Eric Staal – 7/10

Who had Staal having two assists in Game 7? His skating is so much better than it was at the end of the season where it looked like he was moving in quicksand. Was super aggressive in battles along the boards. Got killed in the faceoff dot but that was really the only part of the game where he struggled. Escaped two clear penalty calls for some reason. Great poke check at the blueline on Marner led to Gallagher’s goal.

Joel Armia – 7/10

Like Danault, he’s earned a contract extension with his play this series. His stick was at its surgical best last night. Could have put the game away late with a shotoff a half break that Campbell stopped with his toe. Led the team in hits with five. Solid on the penalty kill. Competed extremely hard. Owned the boards in the offensive zone. Cycle king.

Corey Perry – 6/10

Favourite moment of the game was watching his face change in slow motion as he felt the pain of Suzuki’s shot hitting his knee and then realized the puck was in the net. Kept going back to the front of the net and held control of the puck down low. Least used Habs forward. Wasn’t particularly noticeable at times, but popped up when the team needed him most.

COACH

Dominique Ducharme – 8/10

Liked the way he mixed and matched his lines in the first to make sure the team was defensively solid on all fronts. Gave Gustafsson and Kulak more ice time and they rewarded him with quality minutes. Seems to have found an ideal first power play unit that ended up converting last night. Every one of the forward lines brought something to the table. His team outworked and outhustled the Leafs in all three zones. Let’s see what he can do with the team against the Jets.   

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