Workmanlike Canadiens have powerful Penguins on the brink

Prior to the pandemic, the Montreal Canadiens were 10 points out of a playoff spot and looking to next season. Now they're on the verge of knocking the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins out of the qualifying round.
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These are not your father’s Montreal Canadiens. Check that, depending on how old you are, these actually might resemble your dad’s Habs. But they’re certainly not your grandfather’s. That much was evident when coach Claude Julien answered a question in French about his team’s defense corps after the Canadiens shocked the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of their qualification series.

Mixing both of Canada’s official languages, better known as Franglais, Julien praised “The Big Three” for the Canadiens. Anyone who knows even a little about the illustrious history of the Canadiens knows that you never, ever use those words unless you’re talking about Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe, a trio of defensemen who have 20 Stanley Cup rings, two Norris Trophies and two Conn Smythe Trophies among them. The 2020 version of “The Big Three” consists of Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chariot. Julien may have some serious ’splaining to do when the Canadiens return to Montreal after the playoffs, but we’ll let this one slide. After all, he was pretty excited.

As he should have been. Prior to the global pandemic, the Canadiens were 10 points out of a playoff spot with 11 games to play. Almost five months later, they find themselves one win away from handing the Penguins their second straight first-round ouster. And while goalie Carey Price was seen as the biggest X-Factor for the Canadiens, and their only hope for victory, coming into the series, he has hardly been the only contributor. Montreal’s 4-3 win in Game 3 of the series was the classic template for everyone pulling at the same end of the rope. There is no resemblance between the 21st century Canadiens to one that dominated the first eight decades of the 20th century, then managed to claw out Stanley Cups in the ninth and 10th. The team's highest scorer this season was Tomas Tatar, who finished tied for 35th in league scoring. The Habs have not had a top-20 scorer in 12 years and haven't had a player finish in the top 10 in 34 years. These Canadiens are all about guys like Paul Byron scoring big goals. They’re identity is tied up in players such as Brendan Gallagher, an undersized fifth-round pick who gutted through an ankle injury and continued to make life fairly miserable for Sidney Crosby. They're about Petry, who came to Montreal for two draft picks from the Edmonton Oilers, scoring from an impossible angle to give him both game-winning goals in the series. It’s about clamping down and overcoming a lack of natural talent with an abundance of diligence.

“We’ve just done it by working hard,” Julien said. “At the end of the day, we know where the (Stanley Cup) experience is and the only way we can counter that is with our work ethic and our commitment and desire. I think we’re a good skating team and I think we’ve got a lot of potential. We lack experience compared to the other team, but we’re trying to make it up with our compete level.”

You can nitpick, of course. The Canadiens haven’t scored a power-play goal in 10 opportunities in the series, though the momentum they created with the man-advantage led to two even-strength goals. And they’re giving up more than 37 shots a game. But in Game 3, the Canadiens managed to play better at 5-on-5 against a team with some of the best players on the planet. And if you’re looking for something to get excited about for the future, watching Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi making such impactful contributions should have you feeling fairly warm and fuzzy inside. (Note to teams: Do not be afraid to send struggling young men down to the American League if their contracts allow you to do it without them clearing waivers. It’s not a punishment. It’s an opportunity for them to find their games and develop some confidence. Kotkaniemi is not even close to the same player who struggled as a sophomore through much of this season.)

The Penguins, meanwhile, are on the verge of their second inauspicious exit from the playoffs after winning consecutive Stanley Cups. They were up 3-1 in the second period and looked to be in excellent shape before they allowed the game to get completely away with them, which is shocking for a team with that kind of pedigree. “I’m not sure I have a valid answer for you,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said when asked how a team that experienced could put itself in that situation. “I know we’re capable of better. We’re going to have to win the game that’s in front of us.”

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