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The invaluable experience gained by Montreal’s young trio in Game 7

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The Canadiens put forth a complete defensive effort on Monday, and Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi were key contributors.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Five Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

We hear a lot about the value of playoff games for young players, but I’ve always been skeptical of it. How much insight and experience can one truly gain from what is usually for an up-and-coming team a very small sample of games?

Well, turns out, for such a Game 7 setting, the answer is probably a lot.

I have no doubt that Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi grew from the experience. Because, wow, what a masterclass. What a complete display of team buy-in, team identity, team strategy, an almost perfect execution from start to finish of a hyper-conservative, hyper-effective plan.

Dominique Ducharme has received a lot of fair criticism since the start of the series, but in this ultimate game, there wasn’t one Hab sticking out from the pack like a sore thumb. Every player followed the tactics put in place, resisted urges, filled the right lanes at the right time, and not just for a period but for the entire duration of the game. The full 60 minutes.

Sure, there were lapses. There always are. But those were easily erased by Carey Price, like waves coming to wash the shore clean, calming and settling.

The guidelines given to Montreal were pretty clear. They went against a lot of what I have been clamouring for the team for the past few seasons, but in this current setting, in a do-or-die scenario, it wasn’t time to experiment. The pressure was on the Toronto Maple Leafs to make plays. Montreal let that pressure be the downfall of their opponents. In pure Habs hockey, they waited for mistakes and capitalized.

In transition, there was barely any cross-ice passes and absolutely no drop-passes, only corridor rushes. Offensively, especially when the team got a 1-0 lead, players kept the puck low in the offensive end and cycled it. They didn’t even try their trademark low-to-high passes to defencemen at the point. Those felt off-limits. The risk of a mishandle at the top or a blocked point shot and an ensuing odd-man rush was not worth the extra shot.

Defensively, the team fully applied the Columbus Blue Jackets’ formula. They became comfortable being uncomfortable; they let the Leafs cycle the puck until they exposed it. Then, they double-pressured it, battled, and moved the play out.

You have to commend the Canadiens for those battles. Players never cheated toward offence in any of them. They always approached it from the defensive side and then, after winning the puck, they showed the mental strength to make the difficult bump-pass under pressure to the forehand of a teammate who took care of the exit, be it a controlled or uncontrolled one.

For once, the overall low transition success of Montreal was a good sign, a sign of control of the game and of a plan well executed.

Back to Montreal’s three young forwards, of Caufield, Kotkaniemi, and Suzuki, and the invaluable experience they received. All three of them blended into the system seamlessly, playing difficult minutes against Toronto’s first line and William Nylander off and on while maintaining the structure.

All of my concerns about Caufield’s defence were unfounded. He found his footing impressively fast, showing an uncommon ability to take in information and adapt — the kind that characterizes elite prospects. This game should have propelled his defensive understanding even further due to the number of clean repetitions he got in defensive, forechecking, and backchecking situations. If anything, this Game 7 has definitely made him think about the inherent risk and value of some of his plays; a condensed course on winning NHL hockey.

Caufield didn’t only contribute defensively, he was instrumental in the second goal of the game. What he brings to the power play isn’t only a shot, but clever movements, passing ability, and confidence, not only in himself but in others, too. The diminutive scorer does what many other Habs forward won’t; he uses passes to the bumper player — in this case, Tyler Toffoli — again and again even in close-pressure situations.

Before the goal, Caufield had the option of making a soft, pressure-release pass to the point, one everyone else on the team would have taken, but he instead made the difficult bumper play. He attracted Mitch Marner to the top of the zone, away from his zone coverage, and reached Toffoli.

This pass had the effect of collapsing the opposing formation toward the middle of the ice. As long as you hit his forehand, the bumper player can then easily one-touch the puck to another teammate standing in space around the ice, which he did on the goal. Toffoli bounced the puck to Erik Gustafsson, Gustafsson deflected it to Suzuki who, as a result of Caufield’s initial defence-collapsing bumper pass, found space to attack inside the dots and score off Corey Perry.

The power play is about forcing the opposition to move to create a small advantage and rapidly expanding that advantage, like a chemical reaction getting out of control. Creating that first small advantage requires a bold attempt, however. That is what Caufield continues to bring to the lineup every game.

Now Montreal moves on to face the Winnipeg Jets. As a binge-watcher of Paul Maurice’s press conferences (I love the insights), I think he might have preferred a Toronto series to a Montreal one. He frequently stated that the Habs were, if not the most difficult, at least the most unpredictable matchup for his team over the course of the season.

Game 1 has all the allure of a trap game for Montreal, however. They are coming off an emotional peak with little rest against a formation waiting for them. They have to be ready. The series will be just as difficult as the one against the Leafs.