The Canadiens are one victory away from reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1993.
Montreal got goals from Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Eric Staal, Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, while Carey Price had 26 saves in a 4-1 triumph on Tuesday over the Golden Knights before more than 18,000 spectators jammed into T-Mobile Arena.
The Canadiens now lead 3-2 in the best-of-seven semi-final series nd have a chance to close it out on Thursday night back home at the Bell Centre. They would be the first Canadian team to reach the finals since the Vancouver Canucks lost in 2011 in seven games to the Boston Bruins.
Montreal is the last team from Canada to win a Cup and that was 28 long summers ago. The Canadiens were the lowest-seeded team among the 16 that reached the postseason and long underdogs against Vegas. But here they sit after coming from behind and polishing off the Maple Leafs, sweeping the Winnipeg Jets and repeatedly frustrating the Golden Knights.
“We are definitely excited, but don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Luke Richardson, Montreal’s acting head coach, said. He is running the team in the absence of interim coach Dominique Ducharme, who is in isolation in Montreal after testing positive for COVID-19. “We finish off games the right way and have one left to win.
“We have to take the next step to make sure we get to where we want to go.”
The winner in the series meets the victor of the other semi-final series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders. Tampa Bay leads it 3-2 with Game 6 on Long Island on Wednesday.
After three straight one-goal games, including back-to-back overtime contests, Montreal charged to a 3-0 lead in the second period. The Golden Knights flailed and failed on two power plays and are now 0 for 13 in the series. Montreal has killed off 27 penalties in a row and hasn’t allowed a power-play goal since its first-round series with Toronto.
The Canadiens’ defence has shut down Vegas’ forwards, who as a group have combined to score only four goals in five games. Mark Stone, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season, has nary a point against Montreal, and Max Pacioretty got his first goal against the Canadiens in Tuesday’s defeat.
The Golden Knights played so poorly that they got booed by their home crowd.
“It was an off night by everybody, not just for Mark Stone,” Pete DeBoer, the Vegas coach, said. “We’re searching for answers. I’m sure there are things we can talk about and do a little bit differently.
“We’ve got to find a way. I know we are going to be better [on Thursday] than we were tonight.”
The Canadiens entered the night 9-2 during the playoffs when they scored first and did it again. Kotkaniemi banged in a rebound off a shot by Josh Anderson to put them ahead with 11:15 left in the first period. The goal came on only their second shot against Marc-André Fleury and was the fifth of the postseason and first in the series for the 20-year-old centre.
Fleury was back in the net for Vegas after sitting out Game 4. He mishandled the puck late in the third period of Game 3 on Friday, leading to the tying goal by Anderson with 1:55 left. The Canadiens won 3-2 in overtime.
Robin Lehner made 27 saves in the 2-1 overtime victory in Game 4 on Sunday. DeBoer said Fleury sat out not because of the error he made in Game 3 but because he needed a rest.
He ended up stopping 22 of 25 shots.
“Obviously, we are not where we want to be, but I don’t think there is any panic,” Fleury said.
Both teams played tight defence in the first period. Vegas got an early power play – the way the Golden Knights are playing with the man advantage that is not such a good thing – and failed to convert. Price stopped a long slap shot by Shea Theodore with 13:39 remaining, and then a dangerous backhand by Tomas Nosek a little more than a minute later.
The Canadiens had an especially difficult time getting untracked but capitalized on a Vegas mistake once they finally did. After a Golden Knights turnover, Anderson rushed the Vegas net and had his short backhand thwarted by Fleury. Kotkaniemi was in the right place at the right time and succeeded with the follow-up.
Each team had only six shots as they retired for the first intermission.
Staal, a 36-year-old acquired by Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin at the trade deadline, scored his first goal of the series following a nice cross-ice pass from Suzuki to put the Canadiens ahead 2-0 with 13:28 remaining in the second period. Staal, who won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, has two goals and six assists during the playoffs.
Caufield, a 21-year-old rookie who won the Hobey Baker Award this year as the top player in the NCAA, scored his third goal in the series on a power play to give Montreal a 3-0 lead with 10:11 left in the second. He scored off a slick no-look pass from 36-year-old veteran Corey Perry.
Perry, another Stanley Cup winner, signed a one-year US$750,000-contract with Montreal in December. For the acquisitions of Staal and Perry and other moves, Bergevin was nominated for the 2021 Jim Gregory Award which is given to the NHL’s top general manager of the year. The Islanders’ Lou Lamoriello was declared the winner on Tuesday night. Bill Zito of the Florida Panthers was the other nominee.
Suzuki, a 21-year-old centre, scored an empty-netter with 1:06 left. He ended up with a goal and two assists on the evening.
“We had a great response tonight,” Kotkaniemi said. “Our team’s mindset is that we have nothing to lose right now.”
Montreal won fewer games than it lost during the regular season and has been seemingly overmatched each round. It hasn’t mattered yet. Teams that win Game 5 when a best-of-seven semi-final series is tied have an overall series record of 47-15 (.758).
“At the start of the playoffs, a lot of people counted us out,” Suzuki said. “There is a belief within our group.”
Vegas rallied to win Game 4 and without that, the series would be over right now. The Golden Knights are attempting to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time and have only been in the league for four years. They are unlikely to go down without a fight.
The Canadiens are girding themselves.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity the whole year,” Phillip Danault, the Montreal centre, said. “Even against Toronto, we were down three games to one and still won. I think that shows the character that we’ve got and the dedication of everyone in our room. It is just a great feeling overall.”
- With files from Dylan Earis