Still Talkin’ Habs: Canadiens edge past lifeless Jets 1-0 to take 2-0 series lead

Winnipeg Jets' Kyle Connor (81) chases Montreal Canadiens' Cole Caufield (22) during second period NHL playoff action in Winnipeg on Friday, June 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The Montreal Canadiens are two wins away from the third round and heading back home with a 2-0 series lead as Carey Price recorded his eighth career playoff shutout to top the Winnipeg Jets 1-0.

That was a tough watch.

Somewhere, Lou Lamoriello was grinning as the Habs emphatically locked things down defensively like the '90s Devils. Albeit with the aid of a Jets team that had very little chemistry. The absence of Mark Scheifele and Paul Stastny was glaring for Winnipeg.

Based on one game, Pierre-Luc Dubois didn’t inspire much confidence that he’ll be able to take the reins and step into that void. Add to that the fact that most Jets shots seemed to wound a Jets player and you have a comedically bad evening for the home town team.

In all honesty, all of Winnipeg’s huffing and puffing never threatened to blow the Habs house down. However, the Canadiens did let the Jets hang around for far too long. They were one shot away.

Granted Connor Hellebuyck made key saves to keep the game within reach, particularly on Nick Suzuki and Paul Byron odd-man rushes in the third period, but everything should have been wrapped up with a bow on it long before that.

ICYMI: A perfect outing to Winnipeg.

WATCH ➡️ https://t.co/iMqXjY7IMR#GoHabsGo

— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) June 5, 2021

The real challenge for the Habs now is to find that killer instinct. To transition from underdog to top dog. The hunted to the hunters.

They haven’t had to be that yet these playoffs.

It may have felt like the Canadiens had Toronto on the ropes going into Game 7 but the Leafs skill still had them as the betting favourites. To close out Winnipeg the group will have to take another step in their development if they want to keep their dream season going.

Although they are shorthanded, the Jets can’t possibly play any worse than they have these past two games. Expect much more when they invade the Bell Centre starting Sunday night.

The Canadiens chipping the puck out of their zone on repeat like they did in the final frame last night is a recipe for future disaster. Especially against highly skilled names like Ehlers, Connor and Wheeler.

Price looks unbeatable right now, but why test that theory? Why play with fire?

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) saves the tip by Winnipeg Jets' Pierre-Luc Dubois (13) as Jeff Petry (26) defends during third period NHL playoff action in Winnipeg on Friday, June 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

That means continuing to play their forechecking style. It is the one constant in each trio’s individual make-up.

Phillip Danault’s line is obviously the aggressive checking line. Nick Suzuki’s is the creative line. Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s is the speed line. Eric Staal’s is the cycle line. They all play their parts properly when they are being physical and challenging the opponent high up the ice.

It could have been strategy by the coaching staff, convinced that the hapless Jets wouldn’t be able to threaten their goal if they simply denied them the blueline. Counter-attacking hockey is useful at times and worked for the team last night, but it has also burned the Canadiens repeatedly this season.

On the flip side, the Habs probably played their least impressive 60 minutes since Game 4 against the Leafs and still came out on the winning end. Both the young kids and the old fogies up front stood out. Aside from passing and breakouts in the third period, the blueline kept the Jets to the outside and out of Price’s sightline.

But there is a clock on this now. And it’s because of Mark Schefiele’s suspension for his hit on Jake Evans.

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) hits Montreal Canadiens' Jake Evans (71) after he scored an empty net goal during third period NHL Stanley Cup hockey action in Winnipeg, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. The NHL's Department of Player Safety says Scheifele will have a hearing today in the aftermath of the Jets forward's crushing hit on Evans last night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods 

If a two-goal lead is the worst lead in hockey, what’s a 2-0 series lead?

The Canadiens are still facing an unpredictable and dangerous opponent. The Habs also know firsthand how inserting someone new into a stale lineup can galvanize a group. You’d have to imagine that all things considered Stastny will play at some point this series. Let this go to Game 6 and Scheifele comes out of the bullpen rested and with a vengeance. Anything can happen in Game 7.

Despite everything, up to this point the Canadiens remain in a precarious position. Positivity abounds in Habs land.

For now.

Blow this series to the Jets and it takes the shine off of what is still a crucial transitional season for this team. The Canadiens are going to need to win this in five games. If anything, for the heart health of their adoring fans. They certainly didn’t do it the easy way last night.

Those 2,500 fans at the Bell Centre on Sunday could make quite the impact on the way the team plays. Winnipeg seem ripe for the taking.

So take them.

Player Ratings

Goaltender

Carey Price – 9/10

Continues to write himself into the Habs hallowed history books. Needs only three more playoff shutouts to pass Dryden and Plante for the most all-time in club history. Not bad I guess. 10 bucks says he does it. Didn’t need to do much of anything the first two periods. Matter-of-factly shut down the Jets push in the third. Nothing spectacular but didn’t need to be. In some kind of otherworldly zone at the moment.

Defencemen

Shea Weber – 7/10

Not sure if you can credit him with the assist on Toffoli’s goal. If anything, thank Copp’s outstretched stick. But maybe he earned it for his impressive play up until that point. Really effective moving the puck the first forty minutes. Much less so in the third. Led the defencemen with four hits and in ice time. After that dive that had him fuming and headed to the box, not sure I’d be going into the corners with him anymore if I were Ehlers.

Ben Chiarot – 8/10

Decisive on the penalty kill. Also led the blueliners in shorthanded time on ice. Skated really well and liked the way he tried repeatedly to support the attack in the offensive zone. Until the third period where all that went out the window. In survival mode the rest of the way. Although to be fair, it seemed to be more of a coaching decision to sit back. Often there to support and clean up any bad bounces. Made smart decisions with the puck. Looked like he got banged up a bit. Terrific diving poke check on Connor odd-man rush.

Jeff Petry – 7/10

Didn’t skate the puck out of his end or through the neutral zone all that much. Expected him to have more poise with the puck protecting the one goal lead in the third, but got away with it in the end. Led the team in blocked shots with four and in giveaways with three. Took a stick to the face for his troubles. Decent.

Joel Edmundson – 8/10

Steady Eddie. Kept doing what he does best. Short, quick passes allowed him to be one of the few to move the puck out of his zone with possession in the third. Not perfect but at least he didn’t settle for the chip and survive tactic. Not particularly threatening offensively but like his smarts. Knows exactly the right time to pinch low and when to back off.

Brett Kulak – 6/10

Looked jumpy. One of those guys that you can tell what his night is going to be like based on the first few shifts. Made safe, simple plays with the puck. Played his best next to Petry. No surprise there. Wasn’t bad but had happy feet. Positioning was off. But got the job done.

Erik Gustafsson – 6/10

Will he ever be permitted to play more than 10 minutes? Missed out on it by nine seconds. Unleash Gus! Composed with the puck on his stick. Knew when to push the play forward and when to be patient and reload. Mixed bag on the power play. But still think his performance there is enough for him to stay in the lineup.

Forwards

Phillip Danault – 7/10

Facing Dubois compared to Matthews looked like child’s play. And it was. He won over 50 per cent on his draws and didn’t let the Jets players get a sniff for 55 minutes. Most used forward on the penalty kill to no one’s surprise. Next to nothing offensively and no shots on goal. Just did his defensive job very well.

Brendan Gallagher – 6/10

He still hasn’t reached peak Gallagher just yet these playoffs. Didn’t go to the net all that often, didn’t win many battles on the forecheck. Nothing really memorable offensively at all. To be fair that part of his game has essentially been sacrificed as part of his defensive assignment, but he needs to find a way to be more impactful.

Artturi Lehkonen – 7/10

Welcome back. The line didn’t seem to miss a beat with him on the wing instead of Evans. Nearly caught Hellebuyck off guard with a surprising shot. Aggressive on the puck carrier and on the forecheck, but his main contribution was driving the net on the odd man rush to create space and the lane for Toffoli to score the lone goal of the game.

Nick Suzuki – 7/10

He’s going to be one hell of a player. Had the best chance to end the game on a 2-on-1 in the third but Hellebuyck shut the door. But most impressive last night was all the things he did without the puck. Impacts the game in so many little ways. Harassed the Jets forwards he was up against. Didn’t back down from anyone. Closed down space in the middle of the ice. Got in shooting lanes. The chemistry that’s apparent between he, Caufield and Toffoli bodes well for the immediate and long-term future.

Tyler Toffoli – 7/10

He’s the trigger man. Drifted at times, didn’t look all that engaged for long stretches. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. Loves a toe drag and it came off for him on his game-winner. Picked the corner expertly. Felt like he was in the wrong spots to be effective on the power play. He was perfectly average but in the end he was the deciding factor.

Cole Caufield – 7/10

Pass the puck, son! Classic overcorrection night for the little guy. Someone on the coaching staff clearly told him to shoot the puck. So passing was out the window. He’s so good that all those shots almost resulted in his first playoff goal. But it will take time to learn how to pick which spots. Hasn’t really connected on the power play just yet but moves the puck so well. Seems to fan on a lot of attempts lately. Surprised by how well he’s positioned defensively. Poised to break out.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 8/10

Best forward last night. Robbed point-blank by Hellebuyck right in the slot. Tied with Caufield for the lead in shots on goal with five. Was a force along the wall and on the boards in one-on-one battles. 75 per cent on draws as well to lead the team. He’s living his best life right now. Handled his defensive duties well. One of the few who looked good on the power play. Carried the puck with confidence through the neutral zone.

Paul Byron – 7/10

Had a great chance to kill the game off on the rush in the final period but caught between two minds. Got in too close and stopped by Hellebuyck. Took the high-sticking penalty that became Toffoli’s game-winner. So, thanks. Effort was there as it always is. Didn’t show off his speed as much as he’d like to but worked hard down low. Caused a couple turnovers in the offensive zone as well.

Josh Anderson – 5/10

Tough to watch him struggle with whatever it is that’s ailing him. Just not the same player at the moment. Drove hard to the net once and tried to jam the puck in at the near post. But couldn’t generate the speed he usually does to fly by people. Only one shot on goal and no hits. Tried hard along the boards.

Eric Staal – 6/10

Two guaranteed breakaways if he got back in a time machine to 2010. The old legs couldn’t carry him to the promised land. Only 21 per cent on draws. No shots on goal and no hits. Got caved in to his own zone when he got caught out there. But his trio continues to dominate possession down low in the offensive zone and it continues to surprise. Best cycling line the Habs have had in years.

Corey Perry – 6/10

Controlled possession with his linemates below the goal line. Had the best chance of the first period but couldn’t put it away in tight. Part of the most dangerous looking unit on the power play. Faded in and out of the game especially in the third period. But did the grunt work that set the stage for lines afterwards to maintain control in the Jets zone when they needed it in the third.

Joel Armia – 7/10

Most noticeable member of his line. Led the forwards with three hits. Had a few almost plays that nearly came off, including a centering pass to Perry that should have been a goal. Body positioning to shield the puck was terrific. Really effective on the penalty kill, especially pressuring the Jets defencemen. Stays aggressive when down a man.

Coach

Dominique Ducharme – 7/10

Didn’t like the tactics he employed in the third period. Could have cost his team the way they were lining up defensively, but hey, in the end it paid off. Was able to roll his four forward lines with regularity. Overseeing the best penalty kill in the playoffs at the moment. All of his lines have chemistry and clearly defined roles. Two wins away from accomplishing something the team hasn’t in six years. Deserves credit despite disagreeing with some of his lineup decisions, most notably Romanov.   

Montreal Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme talks to a linesman during third period NHL playoff action against the Winnipeg Jets in Winnipeg on Friday, June 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods 

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