Artturi Lehkonen scored on a crisp wrist shot in overtime on Thursday and Carey Price made 37 saves, as the Canadiens beat the Golden Knights 3-2 to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 28 years. Montreal will play the winner of Friday’s game in Tampa between the Lightning and the New York Islanders in the final round.
The last time it made it that far was in 1993 – and that is also the last time it won the Cup. Montreal remains the last Canadian team to win one.
Vegas tied the Colorado Avalanche for the most points in the NHL during the regular season and was heavily favoured to win the best-of-seven series. The Canadiens confounded the experts by winning in six games. That follows a hard-fought victory in seven games over the Maple Leafs and a four-game sweep of the Winnipeg Jets in the second round.
As the winning goal found the back of the net, 3,500 spectators inside the Bell Centre went nuts. A much larger crowd outside the arena joined in the celebration. It was Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec, which is always a party. This turned it into bedlam.
“I’m excited,” Price said. The 33-year-old has played for Montreal since 2007, and this is will be his first trip to the Stanley Cup final. “Everybody in the city is ecstatic. It is a fun time to be in Montreal right now.”
It was an emotional game and well played on both sides. The Canadiens held the lead twice only to have the Golden Knights fight back and tie it. The win improved Montreal’s overtime record to 5-1 during the postseason. It has won 11 of its last 13 games.
Lehkonen did not have a point in the semi-finals until he scored during sudden death on Thursday. His line mates Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher recorded assists on the play. They also had no points in the five preceding games.
“I feel very blessed to be here and to be in the final,” Danault said. He is 28, and it’s his sixth season with the Canadiens. “It is a team effort. I am proud of us.”
The three line mates had been used primarily to shut down Vegas’s top players. The Golden Knights scored the third-most goals in the regular season, but never got untracked against Montreal.
“This is the time of year real playoff battlers come alive,” Luke Richardson, the Canadiens’ acting head coach said. He took over the bench after interim coach Dominique Ducharme tested positive for COVID-19. “It was fitting for them to get the winning goal.”
The Canadiens jumped on top on a long slap shot by Shea Weber with 5:54 remaining in the first period. The Montreal captain picked off an attempted clearing pass by Alec Martinez and fired it past Robin Lehner, who was screened on the play by Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The goal came on a power play after Vegas defenceman Alex Pietrangelo was called for roughing up Joel Armia.
As the puck went in, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin raised his hands over his head. Bergevin arrived at the arena in the same red suit he wore when Montreal closed out its opponents in the first and second rounds.
The lead lasted only 48 seconds. The Golden Knights tied it at 1-1 when Reilly Smith deflected a shot by Shea Theodore into the net. It was the third goal of the postseason for Smith and his first in 10 games.
Cole Caufield, a 20-year-old rookie, put Montreal back ahead with his fourth goal of the series. After taking a long pass from defenceman Joel Edmundson, Caufield skated around Brayden McNabb and flipped a wrist shot over Lehner with 10:24 left in the second.
Caufield only joined the team at the end of the season after finishing out his collegiate career. A few months ago, he was selected the winner of the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in the NCAA.
“This is awesome,” he said. “I love the fans. This city has been nothing but awesome so far.”
Vegas, which had not won a game during the playoffs when trailing after two periods, tied it again early in the third. The score was knotted at 2-2 when Martinez poked a rebound of a shot by Pietrangelo past Price from seven feet away.
The Canadiens had history on their side going into the night. Montreal had an all-time record of 26-3 when it held a 3-2 lead in a best-of-seven series during the playoffs.
Price is 12-5 during the postseason and outduelled Lehner, who was spectacular in defeat. Lehner had 29 saves.
“It is a pretty empty feeling right now,” Lehner said. “Any time you lose in the playoffs and know that the season’s over, it’s hard to take in. It is tough to digest right now, but you to give credit to the other team.”
As a group, the Golden Knights forwards entered the contest having scored only four goals in five games. Mark Stone, the team’s captain and leading scorer during the regular season, had yet to record a point. At the same time, Montreal’s forwards had combined for a dozen goals. Vegas was 0 for 13 on the power play and didn’t seem to have much of an idea of how to solve anything.
Stone ended the series with zero points, and the Golden Knights went 0 for 15 with the man advantage.
“It is a pretty terrible feeling,” Stone said. “I can praise them all I want, but ultimately it falls on myself Caufield has found the score sheet in seven of the last eight games dating to the second round. He is the first Canadiens rookie with at least eight points in one playoff year since P.K. Subban, who had eight in 2010. He has four goals and five assists in 14 playoff games.
“You’re just playing hockey, and I’m trying to think of it as another game,” Caufield said. “I’m taking it all in.”
Weber is 35 and has played in the NHL for 16 years. It will be his first chance to win the Stanley Cup, too.
“I’m excited to still be playing hockey in July,” Weber said. “I am proud of everyone in the locker room, but there is still work to be done.”
Richardson said he and the players are eager to see who they will meet in the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We are lucky to have one more game to watch the other teams and get a little feel for them,” Richardson said. “One plays similarly to us (the Islanders) and the other is a very dangerous offensive team (Tampa Bay).
“We’ll take Friday off, regroup on Saturday and see who we got.”
With files from Dylan Earis