The Montreal Canadiens won in a fight that many didn’t expect they would in their qualifying series with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Many picked a three-game sweep for the Penguins, but so far, thanks to Carey Price mainly, the Canadiens have held Pittsburgh at bay on offence for the most part. Only four goals scored on Price in the first two games. That is the script to beat Pittsburgh who want to score much more, and not have to defend with such a careful nature. Keep it close is the motto for the head coach Claude Julien as he asks for low-event hockey, and so far he has it heading into game three.
The offences finally carried the day in the third game of the series as the Montreal Canadiens came from 3-1 down to win 4-3 taking a 2-1 series lead as the shocks continue.
- Head Coach Claude Julien’s adjustments for game three had immediate results. The Canadiens were having a terrible time creating any offence, so early in this one it became apparent that the defenders were going to be joining the rush. In the first minute, Jeff Petry surprised the Penguins defence by charging into the rush. He got a terrific shot away. Only three minutes later, it was Shea Weber of all people looking like a forward as he also joined a rush. Not only that, he stuck around on the rush instead of heading back to defend. His patience paid off as he scored on the third shot that the Canadiens took in the sequence. Weber with a three point night. A short time later, Victor Mete was right in front of the net looking for a rebound. In the third period, Jeff Petry was down low by himself just past the goal line in the corner where he sniped a perfect shot over the shoulder of Matt Murray. Another moment where the defenders engaged and it made a difference. There is a lot of criticism for Julien on social media as fans are directing their frustration towards him, but let’s ask a fundamental question here. It’s the most fundamental question in all of hockey. Which of these two teams is more talented and how much more talented are they? The answer sadly for the local faithful is the Penguins are much more talented. That’s on the General Manager. Maybe one day Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki will be more talented against Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, but that time is not now. The future may be extremely bright, but the 2023 Habs weren’t playing game three on Wednesday night. The roster is what the roster is and it is pedestrian. All of the so-called top forwards on the team are registering on average one goal each in the last 20 games. The head coach can’t make some sort of brilliant coaching move that suddenly turns Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, Artturi Lehkonen, or Jonathan Drouin into Connor McDavid. Let’s keep it always in mind that the winner nine times out of ten when sports is played is the team with more talent. The Canadiens coach is doing a good job keeping this close with low-event hockey and attention to detail. However, it is up to Drouin and Danault to do better than one goal each in a quarter of a season. For example, your expected top scorer Drouin has one goal in 16 games. Your first line centre Danault has one goal in 25 games. And the arrows in your quiver are for the head coach? Let’s be a little bit more positive here overall. The Habs were 24th in the league this season and are giving the Pens all they can handle thanks to outstanding preparation and in-series adjustments. Oh, and the goalie Carey Price. Always the goalie.
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- The Canadiens had done an excellent job in the first two games killing penalties. In game one, a 5-on-3 kill for a minute and a half in the third period was one of the keys to victory. However, in game three, all that good work was erased. The Canadiens had killed 11 of the first 12, but in game three, two power goals within a minute in the first period hurt the Canadiens’ fortunes. Special teams has been an Achilles heel of the club for a long time. One year it’s the power play that is horrendous, the next year it is the penalty kill that is bad. Three goals in 15 chances for the Penguins through three games and suddenly their power play is firing at 20 percent. That won’t cut it. On the other side of the ledger, Montreal’s power play is zero for nine in the series. That was to be expected. It was a bad power play all season long. We are seeing some of the things that made the Canadiens 24th in the league get exposed here as the series continues, but at the same time, this is a five versus 12 match-up, so anything competitive here from Montreal is quite positive. Just play more 5-on-5 hockey and they might actually get this done. One win in the last two and this is a massive upset.
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- Whether it be easier match-ups thanks to the head coach Claude Julien making sure that he protects Jesperi Kotkaniemi or the 20-year-old is actually deserving of it, either way, it must be noted that the young Finn and his line are one of the best these playoffs in advanced statistics. Kotkaniemi has Paul Byron on one side and Artturi Lehkonen on his other side. All three are shining in the series in shots for and shots against. Kotkaniemi had two goals in the first two games which is tremendous considering the entire team had only four. Kotkaniemi thought his season was over after suffering a serious spleen injury in Laval playing for the Rocket. COVID-19 has given him a second chance to shine in what was a lost season where he looked overmatched much of the time at the NHL level. Kotkaniemi has come back appearing to be a stronger skater after spending all of his time in Finland since March. Remember that he did have left-knee surgery in April of 2019. It can take some time to feel comfortable not only physically, but also psychologically as it is common to keep testing it and playing it safe which simply does not work at a pro level. There is rampant speculation that the Canadiens made a mistake taking Kotkaniemi third overall. Any opinion on that is premature. It may look like Brady Tkachuk or Quinn Hughes was a better choice at the moment, but let time pass. Kotkaniemi does not look at all like he has finished maturing as a player. He just turned 20. Come back in at least three years for a time to assess that is more appropriate considering what we know about how a player matures over time. Some who take a more cautious view on scouting say that a player should be given to 25 years of age before a true evaluation is fair. It is a long time to wait, but consider if a player is still improving from month to month and year to year, why would an evaluation of a player and a comparison of players be finished when the draft picks are still only 20? The answer is easy… patience, everyone.
- There is, of course, no honest update on the health of any players in the post-season, so it’s up to the media and fans to try to read the tea leaves of an injury. Brendan Gallagher didn’t skate in the morning before game three, then early in the first period it became apparent why he did not take to the ice. It seems as if Gallagher has a foot or ankle injury. It is not severe because he could continue playing, but it is bad enough that there are times when he is grimacing at the bench and testing it on the ice. If there is one forward the Canadiens can’t live without, it’s Gallagher. He is the engine drives so much for the club on offence.
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