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Who saw this coming?
The 18th overall seed in the NHL, which wouldn't have made the postseason if it weren't for other Canadian franchises failing more spectacularly, and which only seemed to discover its ambition a few games into the playoffs, is now one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
And while the Montreal Canadiens provided us with absolutely no reason to believe in them while closing the regular season with a paltry 17 victories from their last 46 games, they are beginning to make believers out of so many who made the natural determination that they weren't legitimate contenders for the crown.
Montreal, as it has accomplished in its two previous series, has taken control in the NHL's semifinal round versus the Vegas Golden Knights, winning more matchups, more battles, more shifts, more periods, and, after a Game 5 victory in Vegas, more games.
Here are the three reasons why the Canadiens hold the hammer heading home for a St. Jean Baptiste Day spectacular in Montreal.
A more effective way to generate offense
While the Canadiens and Golden Knights are in many ways mirror images of each other, both teams' means to create goals and scoring chances are far different. Vegas brings the mortar and pestle approach, looking to deposit the puck deep into the offensive zone and grind it — along with the opponent — until achieving the desired result. Meanwhile, the Canadiens rely heavily on the counter attack, looking for opportunities to break from that offensive zone pressure and capitalize on moments when the opposition commits too much.
It's an interesting dynamic, because the launch point of each team's most effective offensive game, or the game situation that most often leads to goal scoring is the same: with Vegas looking to establish itself in the offensive zone.
In the long run, the Golden Knights' approach might be more conducive to success, say, for a 56-game regular season, when the attention to detail isn't always what it needs to be. And it was, quite clearly, based on their regular seasons. But what's obvious in this moment is that Montreal's method to create gainful offense is far more effective than the Golden Knights'.
The reason for this is simple: Montreal's team structure and defense can absorb the pounding and pressing approach from Vegas, in turn inherently creating more opportunities for it to capitalize on the opponents' subsequent vulnerabilities. Over and over again we are seeing Canadiens forwards streak in behind opposing defensemen, creating the chances in attack that are proving to be far more impactful. As Vegas is trying, and failing, to break down five-man units, Montreal is creating free lanes and odd-man rushes at the net while executing a classic counter-attack style.
As long as the Canadiens' defensive zone structure holds, the goal-scoring advantage lies clearly with them, and as Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, Paul Byron, Josh Anderson and Jesperi Kotkaniemi continue to threaten in transition.
The art of accentuating strengths
Montreal is arguably the deeper team in the series. It has a far more balanced roster, and for that reason, many of its strengths rest at the margins. That said, the Canadiens are doing a far better job doing what many top-heavy rosters are forced to do, which is to lean on their best players and accentuate their strengths.
For example, Montreal's dominant top-four defence group, which has allowed the team to continue absorbing the heavy pressure of Vegas, is tackling a far more substantial workload. It's that way because they are essentially hiding Erik Gustafsson from five-on-five play, limiting his usage, as much as possible, to the power play.
It seems Vegas would benefit greatly from a similar idea. Top four defenders Alex Pietrangelo, Alec Martinez, and Brayden McNabb have maybe been their best three players in the series, and despite Shea Theodore's struggles, head coach Pete DeBoer has to continue riding with him. If those four took on even a little bit more, even just eating into Nick Holden's minutes (there were 14-plus in Game 5), they might be in a far better spot right now, or at least more capable of stymying the Canadiens' offense.
Montreal shows no such reluctance to spread the usage among its forwards, and rightly so. In fact, the Canadiens are able create mismatches simply by throwing the fourth line onto the ice, because it's more likely than not DeBoer will counter with his inferior bottom unit.
As the top-heavy team, which is failing to create mismatches in the top six, Vegas has reason to shorten its bench and load up, but is instead remaining rigid, wrongly choosing to believe that it is as deep as the opponent.
Stability in net
Aside from one moment, it hasn't been catastrophic for Marc-Andre Fleury in the Vegas net. He hasn't allowed more than three goals in a game, and Montreal's decisive moments, for the most part, have been well earned.
That said, he's been the third-best netminder in the series, clearly, by both the numbers and the eye test.
Despite Fleury's Vezina Trophy-level regular season, the expectation wasn't that he would compete with Carey Price as the No. 1 netminder in the series. Montreal was always going to have the advantage in net, and the single-most powerful force, given the form Price has showed so far in the playoffs. But what DeBoer seems to have failed to realize is that Vegas could presumably shrink that discrepancy by starting Robin Lehner.
Fleury is a streaky netminder, and always has been. He can go weeks and months performing at the top of his game, but it can fall off, devastatingly, just like that. He's managed to keep it together to a passable extent, but the hints that Fleury is fighting it can be traced all the way back to Game 1. He hasn't looked the same from the very start of the series, appearing to suffer that same sharp decline in performance that has cost his teams before.
It seemed DeBoer picked up on this, and was promptly rewarded for it. Lehner won a goaltending battle for Vegas for the first time in the series, stealing Game 4 from Montreal. It seemed that moment represented a needed shift, and like Matt Murray did in his partnership with Fleury a few years ago, Lehner would take it from there. Instead DeBoer went back to Fleury, who has now lost three consecutive games in the series after the Game 5 defeat.
Now it's nothing but questions and noise and uncertainty around the Vegas goaltending position, while on the opposite side Price has remained unmoved, and in complete control, since the start of the postseason.
And despite the massive advantage that lies with Montreal, it seems it hasn't yet been directly responsible for a Montreal victory. If Price has one of those nights in either of the final two games, it's curtains for the Golden Knights.
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