On Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec, the Montreal Canadiens were on the cusp of another truly improbable accomplishment: they were one win away from making the Stanley Cup Final. In Game 5 in the desert of Las Vegas, the Habs hammered the Golden Knights 4-1 to take a 3-2 series lead and returned home to try to keep their incredible run going.
After going back to Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5, Pete DeBoer had to swap his goalies again, with Robin Lehner getting the nod in the elimination game. Lehner of course stood tall in Game 4 as the Canadiens put together one of their best games of the post-season. Montreal received good news that Jake Evans was cleared for contact in practice, but Luke Richardson opted to keep his winning lineup together for Thursday’s game.
Montreal’s relentless attack early on kept Vegas back on their heels, and their quick pace drew an early power play as Nicolas Roy went to the box. The Habs’ man advantage was active, but slightly out of sync as it tried to put pucks on Lehner. In the end they managed just one shot as the Knights got the kill.
Both sides settled into a nervy affair, with neither side truly establishing control of the period as the halfway point approached. A missed puck at the blue line by Josh Anderson turned into the first dangerous chance of the game as Mattias Janmark sped off on an odd-man rush with Roy. Ben Chiarot slid to take away the passing lane, and Janmark failed to get off a threatening chance, even as Chiarot dragged Carey Price out of the net with him.
The Canadiens took that chance against as a wake-up call, and set out on a crusade to finally solve Lehner. Joel Armia ended up drawing a call after Alex Pietrangelo came up high on a hit, sending Montreal to another power play. While the early moments of the advantage looked sloppy, a bit of Vegas misfortune turned it around in an instant. Alec Martinez attempted to clear on his backhand, but his stick snapped, putting the puck right on Shea Weber’s stick, and the Canadiens’ captain blistered one by Lehner to put Montreal in the lead.
Then it was the Knights’ turn to respond in kind. Just 48 seconds later, their top-six forwards finally found a bit of life. Shea Theodore walked along the blue line and fired a shot that Reilly Smith was able to get enough on to barely poke it by Price to tie the game up at one goal apiece.
The Habs did immediately get their legs back, pushing the Knights at every opportunity, but the teams headed into the first intermission tied.
Period two was all Vegas as the opening minutes ticked away. The Habs struggled to get their breakouts going and spent most of the time hemmed in their own zone. The officials then missed a high stick on Shea Weber, but didn’t miss a hook from Tyler Toffoli, giving the Golden Knights their first power play of the game.
As they’ve done all series, Montreal stifled the Vegas advantage as Price batted away pucks and the defence hurled them out of the zone. As Toffoli exited the box the Canadiens transitioned into an odd-man rush, causing Vegas to panic and get caught with far too many skaters on the ice, and sending Montreal back to the power play.
The Habs didn’t do much with their advantage save for one dangerous rush from Cole Caufield, and the game was still trapped in a deadlock as the second period wore on.
Caufield got another chance off the rush soon afterward. Jeff Petry fed Joel Edmundson, and Edmundson in turn hit Caufield in stride through the neutral zone with speed. Caufield burned Brayden McNabb as he cut toward the net, and this time he didn’t go five-hole on Robin Lehner, instead opting to roof his shot to put Montreal in the lead.
Price was next to hit the highlight reel after the Canadiens killed off an Eric Staal hooking penalty. Martinez worked in deep, then fed a pass to William Karlsson in the slot, Price pulled off an incredible split to make the save with his toe to preserve the Habs’ lead. That save allowed Montreal to walk into the second intermission up by a goal, with a crucial 20 minutes ahead of them in the third period.
Montreal started strong in the third, but one little error from Ben Chiarot flipped the script immediately. Chiarot blindly threw a backhand pass behind the net that eluded Shea Weber, and it stayed in deep. Alex Pietrangelo flung a shot from the point that Price knocked down, but before he could smother the rebound, Martinez poked it home to tie the game.
The Habs were not without their chances to get the lead back, as Phillip Danault uncorked a heavy slapshot after a turnover into the slot, but Lehner came up with his biggest stop of the night. Then again with just over seven minutes to play it was Lehner making a huge stop as Tyler Toffoli fought through multiple sticks to get a backhand on net.
Vegas continued to hound the Canadiens, but still failed to solve Price again. For the third straight game, the two clubs headed to overtime.
It looked as though it wasn’t going to be Montreal’s night as repeated icings put them on their heels, but as they had done so many times, they persevered.
Despite being quiet all series offensively, the shutdown line struck when it counted the absolute most. Brendan Gallagher cut through the neutral zone, dishing off to Danault, who split the seam of two defenders. He pushed a pass over to a streaking Artturi Lehkonen and he fired a shot through Lehner to send Montreal to the Stanley Cup Final.
Now we wait on the winner of the Islanders-Lightning series. It’s Montreal’s first appearance since they won in 1993, and the impossible dream lives on.