Still Talkin’ Habs: Feel alive again. You’ve earned it. The Canadiens are moving on.
Never in doubt. Get those brooms out.
The Montreal Canadiens became the first team to punch their ticket to the semifinals of the NHL playoffs with a dominant 3-2 overtime victory to sweep the Winnipeg Jets in four games.
You are not, in fact, dreaming.
Before Cole Caufield found Tyler Toffoli in front of the net with a bullet pass to seal the deal just 1:39 into overtime, the Habs again showed in the third period why they will be a tough out for either the Colorado Avalanche or the Vegas Golden Knights.
After Jets defenceman Logan Stanley made Carey Price look mortal to tie things up in the second period, a window cracked open for Winnipeg to seize the moment -- make a strong push during the final 20 minutes and send the game back to Manitoba for a Game 5. Win that one and Mark Scheifele is waiting in the wings for Game 6.
It never happened because this version of the Canadiens didn’t allow it to.
The Jets were manhandled by the Habs with their season on the line in the third period.
All of the relentlessness, the desire, the emotion, the passion we’ve seen from this group was appropriately channelled into ending this series last night.
Even with the score tied, there was no indication that the Canadiens were ever in danger of losing that game.
Should we be surprised? Not based on the way the team has played these past five days. But it is remarkable considering where the Canadiens were just 19 days ago.
Mentally and physically wounded, the Canadiens were limping into the playoffs against the Leafs on the back of a five-game losing skid.
Personnel questions abounded. The special teams were in shambles.
Price was returning from an extended injury absence with no indication as to where his game would be at.
Obituaries were being written for general manager Marc Bergevin and interim head coach Dominique Ducharme.
Cole Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi were set to start the playoffs in the press box.
Now, the team that hadn’t won more than three games in a row all season has rattled off seven straight victories to stand alone as North division champions.
The transformation and evolution of this team in such a short period of time have been stunning.
The Canadiens now have the best penalty kill in the playoffs, an improving power play, their best fourth line this century, an elite checking line, a scoring line with chemistry, a physically dominant blueline and a goaltender at the peak of his powers.
“We’re playing our best hockey of the season,” said Toffoli matter-of-factly postgame, after sending his team to the final four of the post-season.
The Habs are riding the crest of a wave. Who is to say that they can’t continue to shock the hockey world against either Vegas or Colorado next?
They will be the underdog once again, a role that has suited them to a tee up until now. No one believed that this team would get here.
They were playing with house money after beating the Leafs, remember?
Out of seven remaining team, the Canadiens are playing their best at the most important time of the year.
The weirdness of this year will see two teams who haven’t played each other in the regular season face off for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
All of which makes it hard to put restrictions on what they can accomplish the rest of the way.
Or maybe I just don’t want to. We’ve, collectively, as a world, lived through the strangest and most challenging stretch of time in 100 years.
The citizens of Montreal have coped with the harshest lockdown measures in North America.
The joie de vivre that oozes out of every nook and cranny of downtown has fallen ghostly silent.
Nineteen players and 2,500 fans have combined to send a jolt of energy through a city that has been crying out for something to believe in.
So scream until your lungs give out. Smile all the wider. Lose yourself in the euphoria of this moment and the ones to come.
Feel alive again. You’ve earned it. The Canadiens are moving on.
Carey Price – 7/10
Time to panic? Not quite. Beaten cleanly on a ridiculous shot by Stanley for his first. Clearly whiffed on his second from way out. Only had to save 14 shots. His puck handling stood out, cutting off Jets dump-ins and cooly moving the puck to a teammate to break out with speed.
Shea Weber – 7/10
Not sure if there was a moment where he really stood out, except for trying to exact retribution on Lewis for a hit on him at the Jets blueline. Held his own blueline very well and was physically dominant down low. Passing was crisp and sharp. First time in his career he’s through to the third round of the playoffs.
Ben Chiarot – 8/10
Can’t help but feel good for him to get one over on his former team in that fashion. Battled so hard in front of his own net. Led the blueline with four blocked shots. Wasn’t out of position at any time. Has probably raised his game the most these playoffs. Very few bad decisions with the puck.
Joel Edmundson – 8/10
Box out machine. His stick was always in the right position and played hard without being mean. Has been the team’s most consistent defencceman so far these playoffs. Was always an outlet for his new defensive partner on the night, Kulak. What a moment for the Manitoba native.
Brett Kulak – 7/10
Had a couple of iffy moments being aggressive and stepping up, especially in the third period. That’s how he plays when he’s at his best though. Based on the balance of his play, he fit in rather seamlessly for Petry for one night at least. Skated really well and looked more confident moving the puck. His shot from the point expertly tipped in by Lehkonen.
Eric Gustafsson – 8/10
What an impactful 13 minutes of ice time. Quarterbacked the best power play we’ve seen from the Canadiens this season. What a fake shot to create the space to get the puck through for his goal. Very aggressive in the neutral zone and his passing was on point again. Hit the crossbar on a rush chance for good measure. Nice to see him get rewarded after sitting on the sidelines for so long.
Alexander Romanov – 7/10
Speaking of sitting on the sidelines, we all got our wish of seeing the Tsar make his playoff debut. Played less than 10 minutes, but they were all relatively mistake free, expect for a couple wayward passes. Brought all of his energy to his board battles, which he won. Made simple plays for the most part in his own zone. Started throwing his weight around and stepping up in the third period. An error-free debut.
Nick Suzuki – 8/10
Picked up secondary assists on both Gustafsson’s power play goal and Toffoli’s game winner. Didn’t stand out from a creative standpoint, but he has a knack of emerging from board battles with the puck on his stick. Most used forward and got killed in the faceoff dot. Stood out on the power play. His compete level really emerged this series.
Cole Caufield – 8/10
Shoot more. Pass more. Everything more! Just wait until he scores one. He’s close. Only two shots on goal, but was threatening every time he touched the puck. His speed and puck handling stood out. Never panicked on the power play. Still hasn’t found his one-timer just yet. Bobbed and weaved his way in and out of traffic. What a play to emerge with the puck and make that bullet pass to Toffoli for the OT game-winner. Kid is a monster.
Tyler Toffoli – 8/10
Of course, it had to be the season’s most prolific scorer who punched the team’s ticket to the third round. Outstanding defensive play at the blueline to poke-check Thompson and keep the puck in the Jets zone. Led to Gustafsson’s opener. Ghosted his way to the front of the net for his overtime game-winner and made no mistake. His line with Caufield and Suzuki looks like it could be a force for years to come.
Phillip Danault – 9/10
Had more offensive chances than he has had all series. Led the team in shots on goal with seven and in blocked shots with four including a monstrous sacrifice in the third. Led the backpressure for his entire line. Wherever the puck was he seemed to be. Owned the Jets in the faceoff dot. He did all of the dirty work at such an elite level. Clearly fishing for a pizza endorsement deal.
Brendan Gallagher – 7/10
Brought his game to another level and set the tone for the team with his energy from the first whistle. His skating was noticeably better than it had been all series. Four shots on goal. Most threatening one was a shot off the bounce that Hellebuyck got with the end of his pad. No surprise he went hard to the net. Picked off an Ehlers turnover in the middle of the ice to set up Lehkonen’s goal. Led the way with his style of play.
Artturi Lekonen – 8/10
Has the same intangibles that Gallagher does but gets it done at a higher speed. What a fantastic tip off the Kulak point shot at a pivotal time in the final minute of the first period. Didn’t shine as much offensively as he did in Game 3. But his work rate was immense and his forechecking abilities stood out in a big way. Such an important player this time of year.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 7/10
He centered the Habs' best line the first two periods. The stat sheet says he only had three hits, but it certainly seemed like more than that. Extremely physical and noticeable deep in the Jets zone. Battled so hard for loose pucks. His confidence looks like it’s never been higher. Taking a stick to the face led to Gustafsson’s opener. Defensively responsible as well. Best faceoff percentage on the team.
Josh Anderson – 7/10
Also had three hits and his skating was markedly improved. Not all that much going in terms of clear-cut offensive chances, but he set the tone for Kotkaniemi when he starts throwing his weight around. Would still like to see him have more poise with the puck coming in off the rush, but it’s not his game. His brand of hockey bleeds into all the other aspects of the team.
Paul Byron – 7/10
Harassed Ehlers all over the ice when he was out there. One of the few who could keep up with him. Like his entire line, used his speed to be a disruptive force defensively. Managed the puck well at both even strength and on the penalty kill. Fearless in the corners. Can never fault his effort.
Eric Staal – 6/10
He can’t be terrific every game. Didn’t have his legs from the start. Looked like the lone player on the team who was really struggling with the back-to-back. Wasn’t bad necessarily, as he still did a good job cycling the puck down low with his linemates. Gave it all he could.
Joel Armia – 7/10
Seemed like every time his stick merely kissed the stick of a Jets opponent he forced a turnover. Led the team in takeaways with three. Effective on the penalty kill. Won the majority of his board battles offensively to no one’s surprise. His ability to hunt the puck down seemingly in slow motion is kind of surprising. Job done.
Corey Perry – 8/10
What a force from the man skating in molasses. Not sure how he continues to glide in and out of traffic on the rush despite not moving his feet. Turned provider on two terrific passes. One to Suzuki in the slot that he fanned on and another to Gustaffson on an odd-man rush that he put off the crossbar. Six shots on goal as well. A puck protection beast. Won battles in front of the Jets net all night.
Dominique Ducharme – 9/10
Rating isn’t necessarily just for last night’s game, but the series as a whole. Put on a coaching masterclass. Has finally found that chemistry throughout the lineup. The deployment of his fourth line generated momentum and goals for his team. Inserted Lehkonen in for the injured Evans and that line didn’t miss a beat. Rolled his lines liberally last night. A show of confidence for every forward on the roster. The deployment of his bottom pairing has been brilliant, never exposing the two together. His choice of Gustafson on the blueline has worked out by stabilizing the powerplay. Even caved to public pressure by putting Romanov in. Deserves more credit than he’s getting for his team’s playoff turnaround.