The Montreal Canadiens have made it to the semi-finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014. After coming back from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs in the seventh and deciding game, the Canadiens faced a rested Winnipeg Jets squad. Fans were still on a first-round high when the Habs had already swept the Jets. Not bad for a team that got into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.
The opening game of the series was fateful. With Montreal leading late in the game, Jake Evans was about to score an empty net goal when he was absolutely pummeled by Mark Scheifele. The call on the ice was charging, and the Department of Player Safety responded with a four-game suspension.
The Jets entered game 2 short-staffed without their regular season leading scorer, as well as injured players Dylan DeMelo and Paul Stastny. The goaltender’s dual ended with Carey Price the victor. The Habs won 1-0 on a shorthanded goal from Tyler Toffoli, and left Winnipeg in control of the series. Scheifele was left with his head in his hands.
The teams headed back to Montreal for game 3. Joel Armia led a dominating performance with 2 goals, as well as an assist on the early goal from Corey Perry that opened the scoring. The final score was 5-1 and the Jets were on the brink of elimination and lacked the fuel necessary for a long flight.
With the opportunity to complete the sweep on home ice, the Habs got out to a 2-0 lead, but the Jets rallied to tie and force overtime. In the second minute of the extra frame Nick Suzuki’s forecheck created a turnover, and Cole Caufield was there to retrieve the puck. A perfect pass to Tyler Toffoli ended in a pretty one-timer. The Canadiens had swept the Jets.
In his end of season presser Scheifele said, “I thought I was going to be tried to be shut down by Phillip Danault. Instead it was the Department of Player Safety that shut me down.”
Find a mirror, Mark. Look in it.
Danault, in the meantime, was busy eating pizza in post-game pressers. These Canadiens don’t care who you blame for their surprising position in this post-season.
While pundits were scrambling to explain how the Habs could possibly be in the semi-finals, the players were enjoying the opportunity to rest and practice while waiting for the winner of the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights series.
Both potential opponents represented some fun story lines.
The Avalanche are the former Quebec Nordiques, who were staunch rivals of the Canadiens until their move to Denver in 1995. Their reverse retro jersey is a throw back to that Nordiques heritage, and could cue some memories of the Battle of Quebec
Vegas brings the drama from their last few weeks of being the shiny new expansion franchise, as well as Max Pacioretty who began his career in Montreal and left without a cake.
One storyline is as certain as a few foggy days a year in the harbour. Montreal is the verified underdog.
Fans spent the brief rest period considering which team was the better match-up if the Habs were to represent Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the Vancouver Canucks did it in 2011.
The Colorado Avalanche looked most daunting, having been the league’s best team this season. Their strength is their high-octane offence and an embarrassment of riches in their young defence group. The Avs swept the St. Louis Blues in their first round series. They were playing without suspended Nazem Kadri who would be eligible to play in a game 7 of the series. But the Vegas Golden Knights had other ideas, and on Thursday night they eliminated the Avalanche.
Vegas will go on to face Montreal in the semi-final, which will get under way on Monday, June 14th. The Habs will be in tough against a team that suffered just 14 losses this season and already eliminated Minnesota and Colorado. Danault has a new power line to shut down, including his old line-mate Pacioretty. The Golden Knights also have depth in their forward group, including one of the league’s hooligans in Ryan Reaves.
Price faces another netminder’s duel, this time with Quebec native Marc-Andre Fleury. Vegas’ defence group is also nothing to sneeze about.
Make no mistake, on paper the Habs are the lesser team. But that was true when they left for Toronto, and this past week the CN Tower was lit up in Bleu, Blanc, Rouge. It was true when they headed to Winnipeg, and that ended in a sweep.
Whatever way it goes, fans can get ready for a hard-fought battle when the series gets under way on Monday.
In the other semi-final match-up, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning will face the New York Islanders. We’re inching toward the cup, and we’re still talking about the Montreal Canadiens.
Blue Jays Babble
The Blue Jays find themselves in need of pitching help. So far this season they have relied heavily on their bullpen while they try to drag starts out of guys that aren’t really starters. But their relief pitchers have been hit by injuries, and with six regulars down those left standing are carrying a heavy load. More than a third of the season is already on the record. How much longer will the GM wait to bring in pitching help?
Lori Bennett is a social worker, policy professional, recreation softball player and coach, and newbie ukulele-ist. A Newfoundlander living in Toronto, Lori loves a good hockey chat or debate, just as long as it remains respectful. She posts her game time thoughts on twitter as @lori10habs.