With a 1-0 lead midway through the third period of Game 4, it seriously looked like the Montreal Canadiens were going to take a 3-1 series lead on the Vegas Golden Knights. The same Canadiens who finished 23 points behind Vegas in the standings, the same Golden Knights who knocked off a potential Stanley Cup champion Colorado in the previous round.
But Brayden McNabb managed to pierce Montreal’s armor thanks to a sizzling pass from William Karlsson and all of a sudden, it was a different hockey game. Overtime lurked and so far this post-season, the Habs have been amazing in the extra frame while Vegas has struggled.
So of course, it was the Golden Knights who prevailed thanks to Nicolas Roy’s pop shot over a sprawling Carey Price, right? So much for recent history.
This game had incredibly high stakes for Vegas, from the fact the Golden Knights were down in the series to coach Peter DeBoer’s decision to start Robin Lehner in net instead of his regular guy, Marc-Andre Fleury. Lehner was awesome in Game 4 (he is a pretty good goalie, after all) and the DeBoer gambit paid off. But the ramifications of the Vegas win are really interesting for Montreal, in my opinion.
The Canadiens have been decided underdogs in every series they’ve played so far. Toronto had them on the ropes until a Game 5 overtime win – courtesy Nick Suzuki’s goal off Alex Galchenyuk’s yikes-inducing turnover – changed the entire complexion of the series.
From that point on, The Maple Leafs seemingly forgot how to beat Montreal and the Canadiens made them pay for it. In Round 2, the Winnipeg Jets simply could not score on the Habs and Price, despite sweeping the high-powered Edmonton Oilers in the first round.
And early in the Vegas series, Montreal managed to largely keep the Golden Knights in check, using that same great structure and excellent goaltending to keep things close – and even get the upper hand after three meetings.
Montreal was having success because they were making their opponents ask vexing, existential questions: Will we ever beat Price? Why can’t we keep track of Cole Caufield? When did Corey Perry find a time machine to switch bodies with his 2011 self? And so on.
Now things get interesting. Because the Habs are still six wins away from the franchise’s first Cup title since 1993. While all teams like to pretend that ‘nobody believed in us,’ Montreal legitimately could play that card for most of the playoffs. Now they are one of the only four teams left and they had control, momentarily, of the Vegas series.
And I wonder if it spooked them.
The playoffs are all about playing mistake-free hockey and capitalizing on your opponent when they trip up. Montreal has been excellent on making teams beat themselves, using perfectly-timed counter-strikes to score goals at what can only be described as at the worst times possible for their foes. It’s been back-breaker after back-breaker, with Price’s stellar play acting as another psychological drain on the enemy.
But in Game 4 against Vegas, it was the Habs outshooting their opponent by a large margin. It was the Habs who had the lead late in the game. And it was the Golden Knights who pounced on a missed defensive assignment to tie the contest, the Golden Knights who took advantage of a scramble in overtime to win it.
The psychological edge Montreal has lorded over opponents has at least momentarily been lost. If the Canadiens want to win this series against Vegas, they’ll have to get back that edge as quickly as possible and it won’t be easy. Nerves set in, opponents gain confidence – it can all go south very quickly.
Thankfully for Montreal, they still have Price as their backbone and to bring the Game 4 loss in perspective, he still gave up only two goals in a game that went to overtime.
For a few days there, it seemed like Montreal was the team of destiny in these playoffs. On paper, they shouldn’t have been able to hang with any of their opponents, but through excellent team play and goaltending, they were earning their victories. From here on out, they can’t rely on the Ghosts of the Forum – they just have to bear down again and be as perfect as mortals can be on the ice.