Updated June 11, 2021 - 2:19 pm
The Golden Knights semifinal series against the Montreal Canadiens pits an upstart contender against a bastion of success.
Which team is which depends on one’s perspective.
The Canadiens are the most accomplished franchise in history, with 24 Stanley Cups to their name and an additional 10 final appearances. The Knights, on the other hand, have taken the NHL by storm in their four seasons and are already making their third semifinal appearance.
The new kids on the block are heavily favored in the best-of-seven series. The Knights finished tied for the most points in the NHL and will have home-ice advantage the rest of the postseason. The Canadiens finished with the worst record (24-21-11) among playoff teams and were 18th in points percentage.
Montreal earned its first semifinal appearance since 2014 by defeating the North Division champion Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the first round and sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in the second.
“I compare it a little bit to Minnesota when you look at the quality of those top four defensemen that Montreal have,” Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “Minnesota was similar that way. Big, heavy, big minutes, hard to get inside. And then I think real good balance up front from the forward group. Confidence. Speed. Well coached by Dominique Ducharme. And those are things that I think we’ll need to deal with.”
A key storyline will be how Knights left wing Max Pacioretty fares against his former team.
Pacioretty was drafted by the Canadiens 22nd overall in 2007 and played 10 seasons for the team, including three as its captain. He was traded to the Knights on Sept. 9, 2018, for forwards Nick Suzuki and Tomas Tatar, plus a 2019 second-round pick.
Pacioretty had an OK first season with the Knights before shining in that postseason. Since then, he has led the team in goals twice and points once. His 56 goals are the 10th-most in the NHL over the past two years.
Suzuki and Tatar ended up becoming key pieces for Montreal. Tatar has ranked second, first and fourth on the team in scoring the past three seasons. Suzuki, whom the Knights selected 13th overall in the 2017 draft, has become the Canadiens’ second-line center and is their second-leading scorer in the playoffs.
It’s a trade probably both teams can live with. The winner of this series will still likely get some extra bragging rights.
“(Suzuki) went to a situation where he got a really good opportunity, was ready for it and has flourished,” McCrimmon said. “We had a chance to add a guy that’s been a proven goal scorer in Max who (has produced) for many, many years in the National Hockey League. When you throw up his numbers over time against the rest of the NHL, there’s names on that board that are superstar players.”
The key for Montreal will be maintaining its sparkling postseason play. The Canadiens’ mediocre regular season, which included firing coach Claude Julien and promoting Ducharme midseason, ended with them backing into the playoffs with an 0-3-2 record in their final five games.
They seemed destined for a swift exit after Toronto outscored them 12-4 in the first four games of the postseason to take a 3-1 series lead. Then, Montreal magic happened.
The Canadiens won seven straight games to become the first team to reach the NHL semifinals. They became the third team in league history to sweep a series after overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the previous round.
Most remarkably, the Canadiens haven’t trailed since Game 4 against the Maple Leafs. Montreal’s streak of 437:53 without trailing is the second-longest run in playoff history behind its own record of 488:38 in 1960.
“Obviously, Montreal has been very good throughout the playoffs,” Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “They’ll be another big challenge ahead for us.”
The Canadiens made their run through depth and goaltending. The team has four solid forward lines, led by the excellent defensive group of left wing Artturi Lehkonen, center Phillip Danault and right wing Brendan Gallagher. Tatar is normally in Lehkonen’s spot, but he hasn’t played since Game 5 against Toronto.
Suzuki has centered an effective scoring line for Montreal with left wing Tyler Toffoli and rookie right wing Cole Caufield. Toffoli ranked seventh in goals (28) in the regular season and has 10 points in 11 playoff games. Caufield has four points in his first NHL postseason after winning the Hobey Baker award for the best collegiate player in April.
Third-line power forward Josh Anderson and fourth-line forwards Eric Staal and Corey Perry give the Canadiens scoring depth. The blue line is also solid with captain Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot and offensive weapon Jeff Petry. Petry was tied for seventh among defensemen in scoring with 42 points. He sustained an upper-body injury in Game 3 against the Jets and is not expected to be available for Game 1 against the Knights.
Former Knights defenseman Jon Merrill is also with Montreal after being traded from Detroit midseason. He is expected to be out for Game 1.
Overall, the Canadiens have a solid if unspectacular group of skaters. A lot of quality players but few game-breaking stars.
They do, however, have one in the net.
Carey Price has been in Montreal for 14 seasons. In that time, he’s won one Vezina Trophy and finished in the top 10 of the voting an additional six times. He won the Hart Trophy for NHL MVP in 2015, becoming the eighth goaltender to win the award.
Price also has tremendous respect from his peers. The NHL Players Association’s annual poll named him the most difficult goaltender to score on in 2018. He was named the best goaltender in the same poll the following two years.
Price is living up to his reputation in the playoffs. He has a 1.97 goals-against average and .935 save percentage, tops in the NHL this postseason, in 11 games. He’s the key to the Canadiens pulling off a potential upset, if a 24-time Stanley Cup winner advancing can be called such a thing.
“We expect it to be a hotly contested series,” Ducharme said. “When you get to the semifinals, you’re facing teams that have good momentum and confidence. It’s expected. That’s the way things are going for the teams that are left. The further you advance, the greater the challenge. We’ll be ready for the challenge.”
Game 1 — 6 p.m. Monday, T-Mobile Arena, NBCSN
Game 2 — 6 p.m. Wednesday, T-Mobile Arena, NBCSN
Game 3 — 5 p.m. June 18, Bell Centre, USA
Game 4 — 5 p.m. June 20, Bell Centre, NBCSN
Game 5 — 6 p.m. June 22, T-Mobile Arena, NBCSN*
Game 6 — 5 p.m. June 24, Bell Centre, USA*
Game 7 — 5 p.m. June 26, T-Mobile Arena, NBCSN*