There’s a quote from Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle that goes, “No pressure, no diamonds.” It feels apt as the Montreal Canadiens prepare to play in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in almost three decades.
The team stared down the barrel of elimination for three straight games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, somehow stunning their forever rival to win in Game 7. There was tremendous pressure in that series, not only on the players but the coaches and front office. The Canadiens spent to the cap ceiling, brought over their prized defensive prospect from Russia, signed their top prospect late in the season, and even added some Stanley Cup-winning vets.
Yet nothing seemed to be going their way, until the pressure was cranked up to 11. That situation brought out the best of the Canadiens. Nick Suzuki re-emerged to remind everyone that when it comes to elimination scenarios, he doesn’t go down without a fight. Carey Price shouldered a massive burden, keeping the Leafs’ superstars at bay for seven straight games, and limiting the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner tandem to just a single goal. His performance in the late parts of Game 6 is the stuff of legend, allowing Jesperi Kotkaniemi the chance to score the overtime winner and force that decisive Game 7.
Against Winnipeg the pressure was relaxed a bit. The stakes didn’t feel as high as they did in the first round. Yet the Canadiens put the pressure on the Jets the same way Toronto had put pressure on Montreal. The Jets, however, weren’t able to cope the same way the Habs did, falling in a four-game sweep.
Price didn’t have to be the star in the second round, as the emergence of Montreal’s fourth line continued. The trio of Joel Armia, Eric Staal, and Corey Perry put together a strong showing late in the first round, and then battered the Jets every single time they stepped onto the ice. It doesn’t sound like much, but factoring in the role the top line was playing, the performance given by the fourth line was absolutely crucial in securing the series sweep.
It was the kind of thing Marc Bergevin expected when he signed Perry on the eve of the season starting, and when he acquired Eric Staal before the trade deadline. Staal wasn’t a major factor in the regular season, but when the lights got bright, he found the gear he needed to push the Canadiens into the third round.
Then along came the Vegas Golden Knights, a team too big, too deep, and just too good for the “lucky” Canadiens. The only thing is, someone forgot to tell the Habs they were supposed to roll over. It was a six-game series, but one in which the Canadiens were the aggressor more often than not, with a trio of standouts leading the way.
Price was once more a big factor, as his showdown with Marc-Andre Fleury (and then Robin Lehner) was the headlining act of this series. At the end of Game 6, Price had saved nearly four more goals than expected (3.74 via Natural Stat Trick’s model, and 4.4 according to HockeyViz), while Fleury was unfortunately in the spotlight for one of the biggest gaffes of the playoffs.
With a chance to wrest control back from Montreal in the series, Fleury wilted under pressure, and played the goat as Montreal ended up stealing a victory in overtime that same game.
From that save on, the Canadiens were a different monster. Even in their Game 4 loss it was apparent that the series was going to last as long as Montreal wanted it to.
Another major headline was the Nick Suzuki versus Max Pacioretty revenge series, would the former Habs captain haunt his old team, or would the rising star Vegas shipped away come back to haunt them? Long story short, Suzuki put up five points, including a three-point show in Game 5, while Pacioretty was limited to a single goal in the entire six-game series.
The x-factor in the series was Cole Caufield, who came to Montreal with a mountain of hype behind him: World Juniors gold, a Hobey Baker, an NCAA scoring title, a pair of game-winning goals in his AHL debut, and an otherworldly amount of expectations. He wasn’t in the lineup to start against Toronto, but when he did join the team he instantly made an impact setting up an overtime winner in Game 5.
He was relatively quiet against Winnipeg until he set up Tyler Toffoli’s series-winning goal in overtime of Game 4. By the end of the Vegas series, Caufield had scored one less goal (four) than the entire Golden Knights forward group (five).
However, it’s not the goal totals that are the focus here, it’s how he scored one of them in particular. In Game 4, Robin Lehner stoned Caufield on a breakaway, then mentioned after the game that he knew Caufield was going high or five-hole the whole way and had him scouted.
Cole Caufield took that to heart, saying in an interview the next day that he’s glad Lehner opened his mouth. That’s bold talk for a player with fewer than 20 games of professional experience, so he went out and immediately scored on Marc-Andre Fleury in the next game. Then, he had his rematch with Robin Lehner in Game 6, with the entire world watching, and he didn’t go five-hole a second time.
There’s one task left ahead of the Canadiens: they have to face the defending Stanley Cup champions. Tampa Bay is a conglomeration of every challenge they’ve faced so far: skilled like Toronto, with a great goalie like Winnipeg, and deep like Las Vegas. Montreal has made their name on being the underdog all playoffs, and as much as people are getting forced to believe in them, it’s a tough road to the Cup.
The good news is that when the pressure has been cranked up in the playoffs, the Canadiens have found their way to shine.