Goals are for fans; NHL players pay more attention to subtleties that serve as signifiers of effort and courage.
So talk if you must about Artturi Lehkonen and Alexander Radulov putting the puck in the net at Madison Square Garden, what endears them most to their Montreal Canadiens teammates happened elsewhere.
Like the time Lehkonen, all five-foot-ten of him, making an uncompromising drive to the net against three New York Ranger defenders, which earned him the type of beating most often reserved for teammate Brendan Gallagher.
Also, the instance when Andrew Shaw risked life and limb to dink a puck out to neutral ice before getting trucked by Dan Girardi into the side boards.
Without forgetting the play where Torrey Mitchell, playing his first playoff game of 2017, accepted getting thumped hard into the Ranger bench as the cost of getting the puck deep with New York playing with six attackers at the end of the game.
“Those are the crucial plays that nobody usually talks about, but they’re so important in the playoffs,” said Montreal defenceman Shea Weber. “In here, we know about it, we notice it, and it inspires everybody.”
These are the sort of things that happen with regularity in hockey, more so in the postseason, but it doesn’t make them unremarkable.
Not every player who puts team ahead of personal risk ends up winning, but all teams that win have people willing to do so.
Suffice to say there was plenty of inspiration to go around in Montreal’s 3-1 win in Game 3 of the first round playoff series against New York (the Habs now hold a 2-1 series lead ahead of Tuesday night’s Game 4).
So more than the goals, stingy opposition shot totals and power-play statistics – Montreal scored two with the man advantage and ran their perfect penalty kill to 10-0 through three first-round playoff games – the Habs derive pleasure from the hundreds of little and not-so-little physical sacrifices that go into a win.
Take the prototypical sequence where Radulov, the overtime hero in Game 2, back-checked furiously on Ranger captain Ryan McDonagh at the end of the second period to prevent a goal – “I just put all my weight on my stick, he’s a strong guy but eventually he didn’t get the shot,” Radulov said – and then got a zesty two-handed slash on the ankle for his trouble.
“I don’t feel anything, you get so into the game. Sometimes you whack the guy, sometimes they whack you, it’s part of the game. You have to stick with it, you have to sacrifice and move forward,” he said.
Weber, who played with Radulov during the latter’s star-crossed tenure with the Nashville Predators, said: “He was really good for us as a young kid, he played energetic, he had that fire. It might have rubbed some of the older guys the wrong way, but we were only a year apart so I didn’t know. At the same time, they knew what he meant to the team.”
Asked what’s different about him now, Weber quipped: “Less teeth.”
Few players in the NHL take as much obvious enjoyment from playing the game as Radulov, who is as rambunctious in the dressing room as he is on the ice.
“He certainly doesn’t hold it in,” said Weber, a man who does.
In the third period, there was Radulov fighting to get a puck out of the Montreal end as if a child’s life depended on it.
“Everyone has to do their job defensively,” Radulov shrugged afterward.
The Habs certainly did that; absent a few early odd-numbered chances and a Jesper Fast shot that pinged off a post, the Rangers had just 12 shots through two periods (21 overall) and only six high-danger scoring chances on the night compared to Montreal’s 11, per Naturalstattrick.com.
It was a masterful road game, the Habs are up 2-1 in the series as a result, and coach Claude Julien told his players after the game to relish it – just not too much.
“He said to enjoy it, but we can’t be satisfied,” smiled Gallagher.
If the Habs were led by Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec in the second game, a 4-3 overtime thriller Montreal dominated for the final 40 minutes of play, this one was about Radulov, Lehkonen, and to a lesser extent Alex Galchenyuk.
The plucky Finn – Lehkonen, the youngest player on the roster – showed the same form that led him to a Swedish Hockey League playoff scoring crown last year.
Late in the second period, he was on the receiving end of a tic-tac-toe passing play involving Plekanec and Gallagher and ripped a shot high into Henrik Lundqvist’s net.
It was a sequence they had practiced earlier in the day.
“I was missing the net most of the time,” Lehkonen laughed.
In the third period Galchenyuk, restored to centre late in Game 2 and reprising his role in New York, combined with Radulov to set Weber up for the power-play winner.
The two have an understanding on the ice that sometimes seems to verge on the telepathic, when Radulov made a gorgeous little play along the boards to shield the puck and dish it to Galchenyuk, who shifted to the middle of the ice and froze Lundqvist before passing to Weber, who scored.
“I didn’t think he’d seen me, I was yelling and screaming at him for the puck,” laughed Weber, who is quietly putting together a tremendous series.
Radulov iced the result with a typical Radulov goal; accepting a pass from Philip Danault, he stormed to the middle of the ice, fought off big defenceman Brady Skjei, and flipped the puck past Lundqvist with one hand on his stick.
Skjei would score late in the game, but by then the result was academic.
The Habs played well in the first game of the series, but couldn’t score.
They gutted out a win in a second game they couldn’t afford to lose and rediscovered the best version of the style they play.
In the third they took it one step further by putting together their most polished defensive performance in weeks – Carey Price was seldom bothered in tight.
For all that, Julien was at pains to avoid irrational exuberance setting in.
Greater challenges – and demands for sacrifice – lie ahead.Report Typo/Error