For the first time in several weeks, the Montreal Canadiens entered a playoff game trailing in the series. In Game 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights, they couldn’t overcome some self-inflicted defensive lapses, and fell 4-1. It was a struggle for a team missing their top defenceman in Jeff Petry, and despite Cole Caufield’s first playoff goal the offence struggled to find a consistent gear against a heavy Vegas forecheck.
In Game 2, Dominique Ducharme was tasked with finding adjustments to break the Knights’ defence down, something he did well in the Toronto and Winnipeg series. The coach was lucky that Petry was deemed healthy enough to play, replacing Brett Kulak in the lineup. Also returning was Jon Merrill who was inserted in place of Alexander Romanov.
The Habs caught a break from their opponent’s lineup, as Chandler Stephenson was not able to go for Vegas. He was replaced by Nicolas Roy on the top line, and Patrick Brown was inserted on the fourth.
It was the speedy power forwards from both sides who led the game’s first chances, with Alex Tuch dancing around Tyler Toffoli before being denied by Carey Price’s blocker. At the other end of the ice it was Josh Anderson working below the goal line, shaking off his defender and creating a rebound that Petry just missed as Marc-Andre Fleury went with the old-school two-pad stack.
Unlike in Game 1, the Canadiens were able to capitalize in the opening minutes of pressure, with the fourth line announcing its arrival to the series. As the puck settled in the Vegas zone, it was fed from Corey Perry to Joel Edmundson, who was creeping up into the faceoff circle. His shot misfired, bouncing off of William Carrier’s skate, and right to Joel Armia who snapped it by Fleury to give Montreal the early lead.
Montreal then put themselves in a challenging spot, with Petry called for upending Reilly Smith at the blue line, giving Vegas the game’s first power play. Montreal spent half the Vegas advantage in the attacking zone, with Shea Weber creating a sizzling chance that Fleury was forced to glove quickly. The Habs killed off the remainder of the minor penalty, but then had to contend with the Golden Knights kicking their offence back into gear.
Despite Vegas finding their legs, and offensive chances, Price stood tall to deny them their first goal of the evening. Then, it was the magic of Cole Caufield that allowed the Canadiens to tack on a second goal before the period was over. Nick Suzuki won a draw that Caufield bumped to Petry at the point, and the Canadiens defender pushed it right back to the rookie winger as he attacked the slot. Caufield froze Fleury with a no-look pass, which allowed Tyler Toffoli to throw a changeup through Fleury’s open five-hole to double the Habs’ lead heading into the intermission.
The second period started with Vegas putting their foot on the gas as everyone expected, but the Canadiens’ defence was keeping its composure to keep the lead intact. However, an icing call put that out the window as Vegas kicked their pressure up to another level. Price made another 10-bell save on Alec Martinez, who had crept in from the point and had his one-timer denied by the hip of Price.
One save wasn’t going to be enough though, as the Golden Knights drew another penalty, forcing the Habs to the second penalty kill of the night, this time without Armia. Thanks to some fanned shots and a broken stick for Martinez, Montreal dispatched their 21st straight penalty without much effort, still holding on to their two-goal lead.
As the Canadiens weathered the storm, they found another unexpected contribution, this time from their third line. Jesperi Kotkaniemi flicked a pass off the wall and out through the neutral zone, where Josh Anderson ran some moving interference to keep the puck going. That’s where Paul Byron stepped in, collecting the puck uncontested, and roofing a backhand over a diving Fleury for a three-goal lead.
The lead was cut down to two just before the period ended as Alex Pietrangelo walked the blue line off another lost faceoff draw and snapped his shot through traffic and past Price to keep Vegas alive going into the third period.
The final frame was again marked by Vegas pushing hard right out of the gate, with multiple odd-man rushes and shifty crossovers through the offensive zone to try to get Price moving. Tuch had another partial break, but it was the Canadiens goalie who came out on top with a flash of his glove once again.
The Canadiens continued to brave the Vegas onslaught, picking and choosing their spots to attack down ice. It was the fourth line that again created the best chance, with Eric Staal batting an errant pass away toward the net, and a quick whistle helped save a goal as the puck bounced around loose in Fleury’s crease.
Montreal nearly restored their three-goal advantage thanks to Suzuki, who darted into the offensive zone, dangled through Shea Theodore, and flung a backhand chance on net. He then proceeded to get up off the ice, and tried to slam the rebound home, only to be denied by the pad of Fleury.
That play came at a cost as Suzuki was caught out without a change after Joel Edmundson unwisely iced the puck. Ducharme couldn’t use his timeout after the icing call, and off the ensuing faceoff Pietrangelo found the back net once again, making it a one-goal affair in the dying minutes.
From there it was three-and-a-half minutes of sheer terror as the Canadiens defended against the last push from Vegas. Fleury left his net for an extra attacker, but the Montreal defence withstood one last push to claim a series split in Vegas.
The series will now shift to Montreal, where the Habs are waiting to see if Jake Evans will rejoin the lineup after the return of Petry and Merrill on Wednesday night. Game 3 is Friday night at 8:00 PM, and hopefully by then Petry’s eyes will have returned to normal.