The Canadiens weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs, but give them full marks for coming up big in the qualifying round. The heroes were abundant for the Habs and now Pittsburgh can only hope for some draft lottery luck (again)
Artturi Lehkonen (center) with Paul Byron and Shea Weber|John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was effective. The Montreal Canadiens pulled off the biggest upset of the playoffs, coming in as the 24th-ranked team in a 24-team tournament and dispatching the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games. The capper? A 2-0 shutout where the Penguins were utterly discombobulated.
For the Habs, it was a total effort led by an obvious hero in goalie Carey Price, some not-so-obvious heroes such as defenseman Ben Chiarot and rookie center Nick Suzuki, plus great strategy from coach Claude Julien. And on the other end of the ice, you have the Penguins, who can only look at the end of their season as a huge missed opportunity at what could be a closing Stanley Cup window.
But to the victors go the spoils, so we start with Montreal. Simply put, the Canadiens outfoxed the Penguins by playing siege-warfare defense, giving Price all the looks he needed to make the stops behind them. And Price, who struggled during the regular season, was back to his all-world form in the series (he also got some help from his goalposts, but name a goalie whose best friends aren’t made of iron on even their best day). From rebound control to puckhandling on dump-ins, Price helped his team in myriad ways.
“He gives us a lot of confidence for sure,” said Artturi Lehkonen, who had the game-winning goal. “He was outstanding the whole series and to have a shutout in a game like this, it gives us a lot of confidence moving forward, for sure.”
And the team effort in front of price was just as impressive. While the two-way stylings of center Phillip Danault were a known entity coming into the series (and Danault going 64 percent in the faceoff dot today confirms that), the workload taken on by Suzuki was quite the sight to see. Not only was Suzuki the most-used Habs forward (20:16 of ice time) in his first NHL elimination game, but he spent the bulk of it shadowing the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and earning himself time on the penalty-kill unit as well.
This isn’t the first time Suzuki has come up big in the crunch, however. Last year, while playing for the Guelph Storm, he led a big comeback in the OHL final against the Ottawa 67’s, who won the first two games of the showdown. But thanks to Suzuki’s line (which also featured Flyers pick Isaac Ratcliffe and Chicago prospect MacKenzie Entwistle), Guelph was able to shut down Ottawa’s top guns and the Storm won the next four to win the championship. Now, the NHL is clearly another level, but Suzuki and some of his younger cohorts in Montreal didn’t seem fazed by Pittsburgh’s star power.
“It’s fun to watch,” said captain Shea Weber. “Everybody talked about this series, how much more experience they had than us and I almost thought it was a good thing…maybe these young guys didn’t even realize how big a deal it was. They stepped up and guys played really well against two of the top centers in the league.”
Weber himself was a big factor, along with partner Chiarot – a previously under-the-radar player I’m sure the Winnipeg Jets wish they had back right now. Chiarot’s interception of an attempted Brandon Tanev clearing led to Lehkonen’s series-winning goal late in the third period, but his play in his own end was just as important. And he was not alone.
“Overall, our structure got better,” Price said. “We really developed into a defensive cluster and made it more difficult for them to come up the ice. And we were competing in our end.”
For Pittsburgh, this can only be seen as an abject failure. Pittsburgh couldn’t get anything done on the power play and too often allowed Montreal to keep them out of the middle of the offensive ice. This is the second year in a row the Penguins have been unceremoniously dispatched in the first round (technically, this wasn’t even the first round) and the team likely isn’t getting better next year. Crosby and Malkin will still be effective, to be sure, but the prospect cupboard is near-bare (though Samuel Poulin is a good one) and the franchise is still tethered to much-maligned defenseman Jack Johnson for three more seasons.
Silver lining? Pittsburgh is now eligible to win the first pick overall in the 2020 draft, where Alexis Lafreniere is the prize. Wouldn’t that be something…Pittsburgh winning an unorthodox lottery with a kid from QMJHL Rimouski as the prize.