The Montreal Canadiens are on the verge of their first Stanley Cup appearance since 1993 after comprehensively defeating the Vegas Golden Knights 4-1 on Tuesday.
Here are four takeaways from Game 5.
You can go wrong with two high-end starting goalies, after all
It seemed readily apparent that having two genuine starting goaltenders would be the Golden Knights' ultimate advantage come playoff time, but Peter DeBoer outsmarted himself, going back to Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5, following a stellar performance from Robin Lehner in Game 4.
DeBoer admitted after Game 4 that he merely intended to rest his nominal starter, while Lehner, relegated to backup duty, starred brightly in his sparing appearance. It would be unfair to pin the blame solely on Fleury in Game 5, but this was one of his worst starts of the playoffs, and in flip-flopping between his 1A/1B options, a goaltending controversy has finally emerged with the Golden Knights now facing elimination.
There wasn't a particularly awful blunder like Game 3, but Fleury failed to set the tone, as Josh Anderson's attempt to tuck the puck away created a huge rebound, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi buried it into the empty cage for the game's opening goal.
Against conventional wisdom, maybe you can go wrong with two high-end starting goalies after all.
Montreal can win any type of game
By now, there's no room to make excuses for the Canadiens' playoff success. They've proven they can win with an aggressive counterattack against the Maple Leafs and Jets, they can win when they dominate possession during the first period, they can win when Carey Price steals the show. If you haven't discarded everything you thought you knew about the Canadiens prior to the playoffs, you're doing yourself a major disservice.
Montreal dominated the share of high-danger chances and expected goals in Game 4, and deserved a better result in that contest. Game 5 presented a slightly different game script, as the Canadiens usually come out flying in the first period, then revert to their counter-attacking principles — not by choice, mind you — and rely on Carey Price to get the job done. Price was stellar once again, but he wasn't necessarily the difference in a game where the shots were just 27-26 in favour of the Golden Knights.
Kotkaniemi opened the scoring, scooping up a juicy rebound in the first. Nick Suzuki — more on him below — was brilliant all night, setting up a wide-open Corey Perry for the second goal, before picking off Mark Stone, to help Cole Caufield on the power play for a commanding 3-0 lead after two frames.
Montreal finished the night with inferior possession and expected goals for, despite the eye test confirming that it was the best team all night. At this juncture, the Canadiens can win any type of game, a dangerous proposition as it inches one game closer to the Stanley Cup Final.
Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield are more than just the future of the Canadiens
The kids are more than alright, they're more than just the future of the Canadiens, they've unlocked a new gear for the born-again Canadian champs.
During the regular season, the Canadiens were often characterized as a team devoid of genuine scoring touch, but Caufield and Suzuki have been prolific scorers at every level of their respective careers. It was only a matter of time before it translated at the NHL level, and at 20 and 21 years old, respectively, it's a terrifying sight to see them unlock their seemingly limitless potential in real-time.
Suzuki was quietly lauded for his all-around acumen during his second professional season, and Tuesday night may have been the game of his young career.
During the second period, Suzuki cut into the offensive zone and gamely took two Golden Knights defenders with him into the corner. With one sharp cut, Suzuki evaded his markers, and split the defense wide-open, finding Corey Perry with a perfect pass, and the veteran made no mistake for a 2-0 lead. Chandler Stephenson essentially went for a leisure skate around the net after Suzuki's hard pivot.
He wasn't done there. Suzuki picked off Mark Stone — a Selke finalist, no less, and he would've had my vote for the award this season — which directly led to Caufield's power play marker. Suzuki capped off his career game with an empty-net marker, a fitting distinction as he was arguably the best player on the ice.
Caufield is the only player that could rival Suzuki on Tuesday evening, but it's not as if the two young faces of the Canadiens are fighting over this distinction. We're only two years removed from the 2019 draft, but Caufield very well may become the best player from his class, showing off his elite release for the game's third goal. Montreal posted a 70.47 share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 with Caufield on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. But you don't necessarily need the stats to quantify how good the rookie has been, and how well he played in Game 5.
It's going to be part of Canadiens folklore that Caufield began the playoffs in the press box. Montreal's two young stars not only cast a bright future ahead, but elevate the team's ceiling to heights unforeseen prior to the tournament.
All Golden Knights forwards are to blame, especially Mark Stone
Through five games, the Golden Knights' forwards have combined for just four goals. This is simply untenable. And though virtually every Vegas forward, with the possible exception of Nicolas Roy, has to wear the blame for this development, Mark Stone ought to be singled out.
Stone was arguably the best two-way forward in hockey this year, but he's failed to register a single point this series, and hasn't scored since Game 5 against the Avalanche. Vegas failed to generate quality shot attempts throughout the series, and though it was marginally better in that department during Game 5, Stone was particularly awful — you could make the argument that he was the worst player on the ice, without any qualifiers attached.
As mentioned above, Stone was stripped by Suzuki, a play that directly led to Montreal's third goal, a development that reduced Vegas's captain to frustrated disbelief. Stone failed to track back as Caufield readied himself into prime shooting position and didn't miss.
Stone wasn't bailed out by the advanced numbers, either. Vegas posted a 35.2 percent expected goals for, and a 40 percent Corsi for percentage when Stone was on the ice at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. Mattias Janmark and Keegan Kolesar were the only players with worse percentages, and they aren't expected to produce anywhere near the same caliber of offensive output as their captain.
It's a team sport, and the Canadiens deserve full credit for finding a way to force the Golden Knights to the outside nearly exclusively. We're not here to rip on players with abandon. At a certain point, your best player and captain has to deliver and he's been largely absent with his team now teetering on the brink.
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