The Montreal Canadiens came away with the improbable and surprising series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs after initially trailing 3-1 in the series. In my article detailing how I’ve been dreaming my whole life for these two Original Six franchises to faceoff in the playoffs and that it had finally come true, I predicted the Canadiens to win in seven games. Even so, the actual outcome of the Canadiens winning two overtime games in Games 5 and 6 to force a do-or-die Game 7 in which the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge won 3-1 was even more unprecedented than I could have ever imagined.
While Toronto and Montreal sport pundits have been dissecting the series over the last 48 hours, here are the three reasons as to why I think the Canadiens beat the Maple Leafs:
Carey Price Was The Man
There was no questioning that if the Canadiens were to knock off the Maple Leafs, a team that had defeated them seven times in ten tries during the regular season and finished with 18 more points, that Carey Price would have to be incredible. Price didn’t play the last three weeks of the regular season after suffering a concussion on April 19th against the Edmonton Oilers. Jake Allen was the man between the pipes for most of Montreal’s remaining regular season games, and despite losing their final five regular season games backed into the remaining playoff spot in the North Division.
The Canadiens were wise in getting Price some playing time before the series, albeit in the American Hockey League with the Canadiens affiliate Laval Rockets. The Rockets happened to be facing the Maple Leafs AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies and Price let in two goals in two periods of work. While it was not impressive by any standard it did give him some crucially needed game action that prepared him and helped evolve into ‘Playoff Price.’
Price stole game one stopping 35 out of 36 shots and giving the Canadiens an early advantage. Despite dropping the next three games, he was fantastic, and his biggest moment came in Game 6 during overtime in which he was peppered with 13 shots, and he saved all of them leading to Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s eventual game winner. Price finished the series with a 2.24 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. In fact, his save percentage over the final three elimination games was .945, demonstrating once again that he is one of the best goaltenders on the planet.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) June 1, 2021
The Canadiens Big-4 Defensemen Shutting Down Marner & Matthews
Heading into the series there were a ton of questions surrounding the Canadiens and how they could possibly slow down the top-line pairing of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. The latter led the league with 41 goals, landing him his first Rocket Richard Trophy, and the former finished fourth in scoring with 67 points, Matthews had 66. The dynamic duo elevated their game in a weak North Division and helped the Maple Leafs to the top seed in the division. However, they were completely neutralized in the seven-game series combining for just a single goal.
For the last few seasons, the Canadiens have relied heavily on the big three defensemen of Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot. General Manager Marc Bergevin made a bunch of moves before the season to help make his team more competitive, and no move went more under the radar than the acquisition of Joel Edmundson. Edmundson won a cup with the St.Louis Blues back in 2019 and his veteran presence on the blueline was essential in the Canadiens series win. He finished the regular season with the fifth best Plus/Minus at +28 and was also the team leader in minutes played during the regular season.
Edmundson gave the Canadiens an incredibly solid top-4 defenseman that logged nearly 90 percent of the minutes over the final three elimination games. The Canadiens didn’t get the scoring they expected from Petry, who finished with just one point during the series, but he was incredibly versatile in helping shut down the Maple Leafs top line. While head coach Dominque Ducharme interchanged his bottom two pairing throughout the series, the top-4 remained a force all series long and deserve a ton of credit for how they played. Phillip Danault also deserves full marks for shutting down the Maple Leafs when he was on the ice. A guy who Nathan MacKinnon called “the toughest forward” he has gone up in the NHL.
The Youth Of Montreal Was On Full Display
If you were to tell me that Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield would sit out Game 1 and the Canadiens would still win, I would have had a good laugh. However, that was just the case as in a bizarre move by Ducharme, the Canadiens went with a lineup that featured veteran Tomas Tatar and Artturi Lehkonen. Despite coming away with the 2-1 win thanks to a miraculous short-handed effort by Paul Byron, there were endless questions about the moves Ducharme was making.
The 20-year-old Kotkaniemi drew into the lineup after an injury to rookie Jake Evans, and he happened to score the lone goal in a 5-1 loss in Game 2. The Finnish forward scored three goals during the seven games series to go along with the four he had in 10 games during last year’s bubble run. Despite a down year in which he had just five goals, he has proven that he is a big-time performer. Following a split in Toronto the Canadiens finally decided to bring Caufield into the lineup for Game 3. The 20-year-old rookie proceeded to hit two posts in the first period of Game 3. Despite not registering a point in the next two games, Cole’s read in overtime in Game 5 to pick off Alex Galchenyuk’s pass in his own zone and start a 2-0 with Nick Suzuki leading to the eventual winner was one of the highlights of the series. Despite it being his only point of the series it came on a massive game-deciding play.
Of course, lost in all of this is the play of 21-year-old Nick Suzuki. Suzuki was the center of a package that brought Tatar from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for Max Pacioretty. Amazingly enough, he has turned himself into the Canadiens most complete forward. His hockey IQ is through the roof, and he’s improved his 200-foot game drastically over just two seasons. Suzuki finished with a pair of goals and four points. It’s clear that the trio of young Canadiens outshined 23-year-old Auston Matthews and 24-year-old Mitch Marner especially down the stretch in elimination games.