According to most, the Canadiens didn’t belong in the qualifying round and would be swiftly disposed of by the Penguins. However, things didn’t go as planned last night for Crosby and co. They came out strong, that part was fine, but they were met by a vintage Carey Price wall act. For the first 5 minutes, Price must have felt like he was in a shooting gallery, but he stood tall. The goaltender made 10 saves in those opening minutes and in the process, he got in the Pens’ head. He set the tone by making a couple of great saves on Malkin’s point-blank shots from the slot and that was the start of a very long night for the second part of Pittsburgh two-headed monster. Malkin would go on to take 8 goals but not one of them would cross the goal line.
The Canadiens of the first period actually looked like Rocky Balboa last night, taking heck of a beating and waiting for their opportunity to strike. That opportunity came at 11:27 when Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored the opening goal of the series and his first playoff career goal. It wasn’t pretty, he was in front of the net, the puck hit him and it fooled Matt Murray. In fast, the best thing KK did on that play was resist the urge to put the puck in with his glove when he was pushed in the crease by the Pens’ defenseman. Pittsburgh could have levelled the score on the power-play when the Habs’ PK specialist, Philip Danault, was sent to the box but thanks to Nick Suzuki, that didn’t happen. At the end of 20, the shots were 18-6 Pittsburgh, but the score remained 1-0 Montreal.
The second frame was a much more balanced affair, the initial nerves seemed to have settled and the Canadiens managed to take 13 goals on Murray while Price only faced 8. This was an horrendous period for Jonathan Drouin who took two minor penalties, but his centre, Nick Suzuki was once again one of the stars of that 20 minutes. Number 14 also scored his first career playoff goal with a neat shot wrist shot just above Murray’s glove to give Montreal a 2-goal lead. Said lead would only last a few minutes though as Crosby would cut it in half 3 minutes later before Bryan Rust levelled the score at 12:34 of the second on the power play. That would however be the only power play goal for the Pens.
The third period was as stressful as they come for the Habs faithful, Pittsburgh dominated 8 shots to 4, had 4 power-play opportunities including a minute and 32 seconds of 5 on 3 but they couldn’t find a way to get a puck past Price. This is where Suzuki really shone, because of course, Danault was once again in the box for that penalty kill. The youngster was on the ice for pretty much the whole minute 32 seconds and played like a wise experienced NHLer. The Habs flirted with disaster when a dreadful turnover by Jordan Weal gave a breakaway chance to Sheary and Kulak did what he could to stop him, leading to the referee awarding the Pens a penalty shot. Thankfully, Sheary was unable to convert, sending his shot wide of Price’s net.
Against all odds, the game went to overtime and the Canadiens were the better of the two sides in overtime. Philip Danault took his third penalty of the game which Montreal once again survived. Jonathan Drouin also received a penalty shot but just like Sheary, he was unable to do much with it. That was his chance at redemption after a ratter unimpressive display, but he completely wasted it, losing control of the puck and not even managing to take a shot. In the end, Jeff Petry was the hero, unleashing a wrist shot after a toe drag that found its way behind Murray with both Gallagher (who had 9 shots on the night) and Danault getting the helpers.
While the Canadiens were awful on Tuesday against the Leafs, they treated their fans to a very exciting display for this first “almost play-off” game. The stars of the show were definitely Carey Price who ended his night with a .951 save percentage and Nick Suzuki who saw 23:10 of action, the most of any Habs forward. While people are used to Price being able to steal a game, this truly was Nick Suzuki’s coming out party as a complete forward. The fact that Danault spent 6 minutes in the penalty box gave him the opportunity to shine and boy did he take it. He showed that he was not only talented but that he also had a very high hockey IQ making the right decisions at every turn. In a game where Claude Julien had the last change, he still managed to more or less get the match-ups he wanted with Crosby facing Danault more often than not and when he didn’t the other players answered the call. Even Max Domi who isn’t known for his face-off abilities managed to win 2 of the 4 faceoffs he took against the Pens’ captain.
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect game. When you get utterly dominated in the first and your goaltender bails you out time and time again, it can’t be said that you played a perfect game. If the Canadiens are to win the series, they will have to be better than they were last night as it’s doubtful that Price could steal 2 more games in this fashion. Kudos to the Habs defense as well who did a great job of picking up the rebounds and clearing the front of the net. Chances are, the Penguins will come out firing next game and will want to solve Price early on to get the momentum back in this series but for now, Montreal can enjoy the fact that they took a game from a Stanley Cup pedigree team.
What’s interesting about this game though is that while the vets were lacking discipline and taking penalties left, right and center, the youngsters shone bright. Both Suzuki and Kotkaniemi were impressive and this bodes well for the Canadiens future. I can’t help but think that it would be great to see what Poehling and Even could do if they were to be brought in… Knowing Julien though, even though Weise and Weal didn’t do much of note (asides from 5 hits for Weise), they will remain in the line-up, the coach rarely changes his line-up after a win. Game 2 is set for Monday at 20:00 and if this game is anything to go by, it should be another exciting 60 minutes (or more)!
Before I leave you, if you are a regular reader, you know that I sometimes write product review of Upper Deck trading cards. When I do these, it’s with complimentary boxes provided by Upper Deck and Chris Carlin, their Head of Customer Experience. Yesterday, I found out that Chris’ brother has been battling ALS since 2016 and that he has taken a turn for the worst which means that he needs around the clock care. Understandably, after 4 years, this has taken its toll on both the family and his brother’s financial resources. To get the help he needs, the family has created a Go fund me page at this address: John Carlin Go fund Me
. If you can, please lend a hand and if you can’t, I’m sure any positive thoughts you send their way will be appreciated.