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The Montreal Canadiens and Vegas Golden Knights entered Monday's Game 1 riding seven-game and four-game winning streaks, respectively. All good things must come to an end, and for the underdog Canadiens, the game slipped away after a strong opening frame, losing 4-1 to the favoured Golden Knights.
Here are five takeaways from Game 1:
Canadiens have no margin for error
Montreal was the better team for the majority of the first period, outshooting Vegas 11-5 while creating seven high-danger chances against one allowed at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. If expected goals are your thing, Montreal created 1.8 expected goals compared to Vegas's 0.31, while Marc-Andre Fleury was briefly under siege.
Playoff hockey is often cruel that way, and despite the statistical advantage for the opening frame, the Canadiens trailed 1-0 at the intermission. Chandler Stephenson — who had an off night for his escalating standards — won a draw, Brayden McNabb fed his partner, Shea Theodore, who then unleashed a laser through a Mark Stone screen for the game's opening goal. Erik Gustafsson failed to clear Stone out of Price's line of vision, too. If you blinked, you would've missed it, and yet the Canadiens found themselves in an early hole.
In the lead-up to Game 1, the Golden Knights' superior roster was discussed almost ad nauseam, while the Canadiens continued to play into the 'no one believes in us' mantra, which in this case isn't grating, it is correct: no one has believed in them, and yet they won the North Division title convincingly, while finding a way to irritate the rest of the country. Their luck might've run out. Vegas is a much stronger team, at least on paper, and despite rarely turning its collective game up to first gear, it ran away from Montreal.
Vegas finished the night with 10 high-danger chances compared to Montreal's seven, and finished with a nearly 60-40 possession split. Montreal has no margin for error, it has to take its sparing chances well, defend effectively, continue to get elite goaltending from Price, and that still may not be enough.
Theodore's perfect shot fake — and some inexcusable defending from the Canadiens
Theodore was excellent for the Golden Knights and it's only fitting that he finally got his first goal of the playoffs. Theodore set up Alec Martinez for the game's second goal, and his perfectly-timed fake slapshot made Carey Price commit too early, allowing Martinez to wire it home into a nearly empty cage.
It has to be noted that this play was made possible by a terrible Canadiens defensive breakdown. It's inexcusable for four Canadiens to converge on Reilly Smith after William Karlsson won the puck easily in the corner. Smith tipped the puck back to the point, hitting a skate, and it fell onto Theodore's stick. At this point, it seemed like Theodore had a perfect shooting lane to wire a slapshot with no bodies in the lane, in a dead-centre position, but he sold the shot fake perfectly.
Upon first read, it looked like Price flopped pre-emptively, but he simply had no chance, with no help from his skaters, and we won't see too many pump-fakes like that, again.
Montreal will have to continue to experiment with Phillip Danault
Danault has cemented his reputation as one of the NHL's finest two-way forwards during the playoffs, but it was a rough night Monday, as the Canadiens gamely experimented with him against the Golden Knights' balanced scoring attack. In Round 1, Danault neutralized Auston Matthews — Matthews will never shoot four percent in a series, again, but that's far from the point here — and wore Pierre-Luc Dubois like a cloak in Round 2, holding him to a mere assist.
Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme entered Monday with another tough task for Danault, and he started against the Golden Knights' nominal top line of Stone, Stephenson and Max Pacioretty. In just under six minutes of playing time at 5-on-5 against Stone and Pacioretty, the Golden Knights' golden duo outshot the Danault line 7-4, and had better possession and shot creation numbers across the board.
If the numbers are making you reach for your second coffee, OK fine, we get it, but Danault's night wasn't merely a function of playing against arguably the best line left in the dance. With under two minutes remaining in the first period, Danault dragged down Alex Tuch — more on him below — and though the Golden Knights weren't able to capitalize on the power play, it's clear that Montreal's defensive stalwart may get worn down juggling responsibilities across two or three lines.
The experiment is far from over. Stone-Stephenson-Pacioretty can wear out pretty much anyone, but Ducharme will need to make an adjustment quickly for Wednesday, and for now, there isn't an obvious answer.
Alex Tuch continues to be a human highlight reel
I wrote about Tuch being the perfect marriage of the eye test and analytics coming together to create the profile of an underrated star prior to Game 1, so here's a shameless plug if you want to read about a more detailed breakdown of his game! Tuch was outstanding once again on Monday, and almost scored a spectacular goal in the second period — with some at T-Mobile Arena briefly thinking it went in.
Tuch's seeing-eye shot was deflected by Mattias Janmark at the back post for the Golden Knights to restore a 3-1 lead. Moments earlier, Canadiens rookie sensation Cole Caufield finally got his first goal of the playoffs, a well-deserved moment for a player that hasn't shied away from the moment(s) throughout his post-season, but Tuch's feed to Janmark killed off any momentum the Canadiens possibly could've generated.
At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Tuch can be a frightening sight as he's a world-class skater with a quick release, and can throw his body around with glee. Tuch delivered six hits on Monday, and the Canadiens will have eyes on No. 89 during every shift, a dangerous proposition considering the star-studded-yet-balanced Golden Knights come in waves.
Jeff Petry's absence was glaring — and it may become even worse
After Game 4 against Winnipeg, I wrote about how Gustafsson and Brett Kulak, Montreal's supposed liabilities, played quite well, and at the risk of being swayed too far by a one-game sample, deserved more opportunities.
Oooooof. Gustafsson was particularly bad Monday, inadvertently screening Price during the game's first goal. Ducharme evidently didn't trust him enough throughout the contest. His counterpart, Kulak, was worse.
Kulak was bodied by Janmark during Vegas's third goal, getting bullied for positioning near the net, and the Canadiens defender never turned his head around to locate the puck while clinging on helplessly. Jeff Petry was out of the lineup due to an upper-body injury, while Kulak received nearly 17 minutes of ice time and rarely made a positive impact for his team.
Alexander Romanov should perhaps be spared, but he wasn't on the ice for a single Canadiens shot, while being on the ice for eight against, posting a woeful 34.38 Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. Better games are in store for Romanov, the youngest and most talented player of this trio. But with Petry out, and Shea Weber appearing to hurt his hand near the end of the game — not so severely that it will keep him out, but something to consider — Montreal needs another blueliner to step up, and it was a woeful night from its bottom three.
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