In arguably the most enthralling series of the qualifying round, the Montreal Canadiens once again took the ice in Toronto as the home team against the Pittsburgh Penguins. On Sidney Crosby’s birthday, the Penguins looked to stave of an upset against the never-say-die Habs, who despite being outplayed for long stretches refused to just roll over and die.
The one lineup change for Montreal was the insertion of Alex Belzile. He replaced the rookie Jake Evans, who was injured by Brandon Tanev in Game 3. It was his NHL debut, and at 28 years old it’s an incredible stage for his first game, with a playoff berth on the line.
For the Penguins, Jared McCann slotted back into the lineup, and despite not being fully at fault in any of the losses, Matt Murray ceded the net to Tristan Jarry, an NHL All-Star this past season.
The opening five minutes saw the sides trade scoring chances, with Tomas Tatar getting a good look on Jarry. It was Crosby getting the best look of the early going as he fired off a one-timer that Carey Price deflected up and out of play using his head of all things.
As the opening frame wore on, a familiar pattern emerged, with the Penguins beginning to own all sorts of time in the Canadiens’ defensive zone. Price did well to battle the Pittsburgh attack away and keep the game scoreless.
While the game settled into a lull as the second half of the period rolled on, it was the Canadiens with the game’s first man advantage. Phillip Danault outworked Evgeni Malkin, stealing the puck. In response, Malkin swung around and hit Danault in the face with his stick. In a bit of comforting familiarity, the power play failed to do much of anything, generating little to no threat as the game returned to even strength.
The scoreline would remain at zero for both teams as they headed to the first intermission. The Penguins led on the shot counter 8-5, but did little to actually bother Price.
The first real look of the second period came to the Canadiens as Artturi Lehkonen broke in around the Penguins’ defence. As he approached the crease he flicked a backhand pass across to Victor Mete that a Pittsburgh player got part of a stick on, knocking it into the air and just over the top of the net as Jarry swung to push the chance away. From there it was all Habs in the Penguins’ zone, with Jonathan Drouin kicking off a long spell of shots and chances for Montreal.
It all nearly imploded with one change, however, as Jeff Petry and Mete played a two-on-two rush against Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Guentzel took the puck in against Petry, who forced the forward out of a shooting lane and behind the net. Thanks to a poor change from Brett Kulak, it was Mete rushing back into the play, but he overskated, leaving Crosby alone and wide open for a Guentzel pass. Crosby fell off-balance on his chance, and Price came across to block the shot and deny the Penguins’ captain a goal.
Nick Suzuki nearly scored on a goalmouth tap-in not long after. The Habs still had a challenge in front of them as Joel Armia went off on a high-sticking call. The power play was less than a non-factor as Suzuki and Lehkonen swarmed all over the Penguins, preventing them from ever getting anything going.
After Crosby crashed into Price, causing an kerfuffle between the two, the Habs drew a power play thanks to Brian Dumoulin heading off for a hold. Again the power play yielded no answers for the Habs, and the horn sounded with still no goals on the board.
The Habs’ attack came out strong to start the third, with Brendan Gallagher wiring a shot in on Tristan Jarry, and not long after that Paul Byron cranked a blast off the iron. Gallagher found another chance as well, with Tatar sending him in alone, but Jarry denied him once more to keep the game scoreless.
A tripping call on Dale Weise provided a chance for the Penguins’ man advantage to take the ice. A strong showing from Price and the Habs’ penalty kill denied them yet again and Montreal went back to work at even strength to find a goal of any kind.
Then, as it was written in the stars, Playoff Artturi Lehkonen arrived right when the Canadiens needed him most. Paul Byron drove the net on a Ben Chiarot shot, and as he was drewing a penalty he flicked the puck back to the net-front area. Lehkonen jumped all over the chance, burying it past Jarry to finally find the game’s first goal, and a Montreal lead.
The time was not on the side of the Penguins. With under three minutes to go they had to best a goaltender that had been foiling them at nearly every single turn.
Their moment never came. After a timeout, Phillip Danault won a key draw, and Shea Weber rifled the puck around the boards, past every Penguins player, and into the empty net, sealing the victory.
Against all projections, all doubts, and in many cases their own fanbase, the Montreal Canadiens pulled off the biggest upset in the qualifying round against Pittsburgh. Price showed the world why teams wanted nothing to do with him in the play-in rounds, while the top pieces on defence stood tall and shutdown a vaunted Penguins attack. It was a perfect storm of good things for the Habs.
Now they await the winner of Saturday’s round-robin games between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, learning what their next great challenge of the post-season will be.