Still Talkin’ Habs: Opportunistic Canadiens crush Jets 5-1, take commanding 3-0 series lead

“The best way to get back at them for (the hit on Jake Evans) is to win the series”: Jeff Petry’s words after Game 1 are 60 minutes away from becoming reality.

The Montreal Canadiens punished the Winnipeg Jets on the scoreboard 5-1 and could sweep a playoff series for the first time since 2013-14 at the Bell Centre.

It’s just a shame Petry likely won’t be there to see it.

No, the Habs defenceman wasn’t injured as a result of the Jets losing their composure in the third period.

In probably the first case of bad luck for the Canadiens these playoffs, Petry got his hand caught in a camera hole and was forced to leave the game 20 minutes early with an injury that is certainly a worry.

But his teammates didn’t miss a beat.

Which begs the question: What is happening? Who are these Montreal Canadiens?

There was a moment in the final frame with his team up 3-1 where the camera cut to interim head coach Dominique Ducharme.

Clipboard in hand, pacing up and down the bench with pleading eyes.

Tapping it to try and communicate the strategy to any of his players who hadn’t caught it.

What was this tactical nous that needed to be applied to get his team over the line?

What had the brain trust of the coaching staff concocted to frustrate the Jets into the self-sabotage they eventually unleashed upon themselves?

It was a blue circle, repeatedly drawn over and over around the crease.

And It worked. Both offensively and defensively.

The Habs won the battle in front of the net. Simple as that.

Upfront, they scored three goals within six feet of Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck’s crease.

In their own zone, the team boxed out fantastically well and denied Winnipeg the middle of the ice.

When a chance fell to the Jets, they were stymied by Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who continues to play at an all-world level that is the foundation of his team’s success.

While I wrote after Game 2 that sitting back and inviting pressure wouldn’t be a successful strategy for the Canadiens going forward, what the team did in winning time Sunday night wasn’t exactly that.

They suffocated the Jets. The Habs were somehow both desperate and professional.

Eager to backcheck and harass a Winnipeg puck carrier, yet calm with it on their stick. There have been numerous times this season, heck these playoffs, where that style of play has cost them late in games.

But there is a quiet confidence around this group right now that bodes well for both the immediate and long-term future of this franchise.

It probably doesn’t hurt the hubris when you can dictate the game off the back of another early lead.

The Canadiens haven’t trailed since Game 4 against Toronto, a remarkable achievement and another aspect of the game they couldn’t get right during the regular season.

As has been the case so far this series, it was the cycle cyclone line of Eric Staal, Corey Perry and Joel Armia that not only got the team on the board first, but gave them confidence.

Armia, in particular, was brilliant, scoring twice shorthanded while being a beast along the boards to continue his stellar playoffs.

The trio itself seems to almost be playing in slow motion, but their body positioning is so good that they bully defencemen down low.

It also helps that none of them are less than 6’3".

There hasn’t been a fourth line this dominant for the Canadiens this century and is surely a feather in the cap of general Marc Bergevin having acquired one as a throw-in in a trade with Sunday night’s opponent, one at the deadline and one as a free agent for less than a million bucks. They have led the way in the second round.

What does Monday night hold in store? I think some of those relaxed restrictions going into effect might have to be tightened right back up just after 11 p.m.

The Jets pushed in the second and third periods before losing their heads after Habs centreman Nick Suzuki made it 4-1.

Winnipeg star Mark Scheifele isn’t back for another two games.

Their Vezina trophy-winning goalie is being outplayed by the best goalie of his generation.

They are being outscored 11-4 so far.

Winnipeg played the final 10 minutes of Sunday night’s game like a defeated team.

Oh, and by the way, history isn’t on their side. Only four teams have ever overturned a 3-0 series deficit.

Look, we’ve all been locked up for far too long. We can afford to get a little ahead of ourselves.

All that matters is that the players in red, white and blue don’t. These Montreal Canadiens aren’t likely to do so.

This team takes care of business. Expect them to do so again Monday night.

PLAYER RATINGS

GOALTENDER

Carey Price – 9/10

Seeing-eye passes were the only ones that were going to beat him Sunday night. Easily the best story of this team so far. With five seasons left on his contract, to have found this level again approaching his mid-thirties is so reassuring for this team. Cross-ice on Copp in the first, Wheeler in the slot at the end of the period, in tight on Connor in the third. Two crossbars from Wheeler and Ehlers, the result of them trying to pick their spots on a guy who is in their heads right now.

DEFENCEMEN

Shea Weber – 8/10

Looked very poised with the puck on his stick, save for one bonehead turnover at the end of the first. Even a couple of dangles moving into the Jets zone. Great touch pass in the third to send Caufield in on a rush chance. Stick was in the right spot in front of his net and he killed the play well along the boards. Moved the men in front of his goalie. Calm, cool and collected from the captain. Should bring a bit more of that to the power play, but that’s nitpicking.

Ben Chiarot – 8/10

See: "Weber, Shea." Did a lot of the same things his partner did. Smart, simple and effective hockey. The gaps between him and the forwards were very good. Competed hard in one-on-one battles, winning most of them. Kept his composure when the Jets had some spells of possession against his pairing in the second. Skated well through the neutral zone. Even looked at ease in the third on the power play. Led the blueline in blocked shots. Getting one over on his former team and it must feel so good.

Joel Edmundson – 8/10

Also didn’t look out of place on the power play late on. Concerning to see him get the wobbly legs off what has to be Stanley’s third elbow to the face of a Habs player so far. Best passer of the three stay-at-home defencemen Sunday night. Stood out on the penalty kill (PK). He has been the best skater down a man on the best playoff PK in the league. Never spends too long in his own zone. He doesn’t have to be overly physical because his stick is so disruptive in all areas of the defensive zone.

Jeff Petry – 7/10

Hope he’s okay. Not necessarily for Monday night’s game, but certainly for the rest of the playoffs. Used his elite skating to simply be there to deny rush goal-scoring opportunities. Really not much of anything going forward in terms of rush chances or generating offense. But like the rest of the D-corps not named Gustafsson just kept it very simple.

Brett Kulak – 7/10

Really didn’t like the start of his game where he once again looked nervous and unsure of his positioning on the ice. But settled down when he was needed in the third. Didn’t try to do too much. Didn’t skate himself into trouble like he did on Lowry’s goal where he got walloped along the boards and then got beat to the middle. Tried to make up for it, but the damage was done. None of that in the third. Does lose too many battles along the boards.

Erik Gustafsson – 7/10

He’s the only defenseman who really tried to pass his way out of trouble Sunday night. To his credit, it worked well at times, most notably his multiple passes to break through the neutral zone and send in Byron on an odd-man rush in the third. When it doesn’t, his play can be nerve-wracking. But he’s more than outplayed expectations, especially on the power play. Even in limited ice time. Looks most confident in possession of the puck. That can’t be a bad thing.

FORWARDS

Phillip Danault – 8/10

It was his hard work on the forecheck that made the Lehkonen goal happen. Created the turnover in the neutral zone that led to Perry’s opener. Even had a chance in the slot that could have been his first goal of these playoffs, if not for an uncalled Wheeler hook. Does all the unheralded stuff so well. Ferocious on the backcheck. He’ll be back next season.

Artturi Lehkonen – 8/10

The puck kept finding him and he didn’t miss the net. Even troubled Hellebuyck with some heavy wrist shots that created rebound opportunities. Like Danault, gave it his all tracking back and looked good on the penalty kill. Loves being the first man in on the forecheck. Led the team with seven shots. Went hard to the front of the net for his goal.

Brendan Gallagher – 6/10

Created the space for Lehkonen’s goal by doing what he does best -- AKA, get manhandled in front of the net. Not nearly as noticeable as his two linemates. His passing and puck control improved as the game wore on. Played more to his style than he has in other games this series. Just feels like something is missing right now. Can’t put my finger on it.

Nick Suzuki – 7/10

Despite appearing to be a mild-mannered gentleman, he went through the wars Sunday night and had no problem dishing some punishment back out when he had the chance. Great hit on Morrissey on the forecheck in the corner. Hang on to your stick though, son. Takes great angles in the defensive zone to stay in the right place. Best centreman on faceoffs Sunday night and beat a great defensive center like Lowry to the front of the net for his goal. Star in the making.

Cole Caufield – 8/10

Was the Habs' most dangerous forward and deserved a goal. Outstanding pass to Suzuki for his. All he had to do was put his stick on the ice and it was in. Six shots and every one of them was dangerous. Robbed by Hellebuyck in the second with the glove. His speed stood out in a big way with multiple chances off the rush. Feels like he’s a goal away from several in a short time. Still hasn’t found it on the power play. Committed defensively. Still needs to work on positioning, but better than expected.

Tyler Toffoli – 6/10

Didn’t seem like he had his legs. Was way out of it in the first where he was making some very questionable decisions with the puck that led to turnovers. Settled down in the second and did the grunt work on his line digging pucks out of the corners. Created space for Suzuki and Caufield. Had a chance or two on the power play, but wasn’t an offensive catalyst.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 6/10

He hit some people. Four of them Sunday night. Nice to see him not shrink as the physicality ratcheted up in the third. Not much of anything offensively, save for a couple of decent passes and speed on the rush. Did his job defensively in front of his net. Needs to be more assertive on the power play. But job: done.

Josh Anderson – 7/10

Had his best chance of the series, but fired a 30-foot wrist shot wide on the blocker side. Back to his best as part man, part runaway train. Six hits on the night to lead the team. Stood up in the third when the Jets were frustrated and taking liberties with some of his teammates. Had no problem stepping in there and being the pugilist-in-chief. Refused to be pushed around.

Paul Byron – 6/10

His best chance of the game was off the rush in the third, but was blocked by Benn. Was the other guy on the two-on-one for Armia’s first shorthanded goal. His speed stood out, particularly on the penalty kill. Took a stick to the head that had him leaking all over the bench. Wasn’t bad, but was overshadowed by another short and speedy teammate.

Eric Staal – 7/10

He and his linemates set the tone for the entire game with their zone time and possession in the first. Seemed like only a matter of time before they were going to get one past Hellebuyck. Just owned the puck deep in Jets territory. Assist on Perry’s opener. He has finally found his role on this team and is playing it to perfection. Killed in the faceoff dot.

Corey Perry – 8/10

Like Anderson he didn’t back down from the nonsense the Jets were trying to pull late in the game. The most beautiful, ugly goal to get the game going after some unreal hard work by him and his linemates. Nearly got a second off a couple more chances in tight. Did his job in front of the net on the power play. The physical work he and Staal are putting in at their age is damn impressive. Led the way with his play.

Joel Armia – 9/10

He’s already earned himself a contract offer with his play earlier in the playoffs. Reinforced that decision with his play Sunday night. Sure, one was an empty netter. But did the same similar defensive work on the penalty kill that led to his first shorthanded goal. Great stick and toe drag for his first, which essentially killed off the game. Even played with some anger, which is out of character for the quiet Finn. Turned multiple pucks over in the defensive and neutral zones. Hard work with Staal and Perry for the first of the game. Domination down low. The Jets used him as a throw-in to dump a bad contract. Got his revenge.

COACH

Dominique Ducharme – 8/10

Honestly don’t know how much of Sunday night’s win was down to his coaching. Did put the lines together and they’re all functioning at a high level at the moment. Penalty kill continues to pitch a shutout. Power play goal to boot. Really liked the way he used his fourth line. Sent them out there when he needed energy and to take some of the pressure off the rest of the team. If Ouelette is in for Petry instead of Romanov Monday night, we riot. All kidding aside, his commitment to his plan on the blueline has worked so far.  

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