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How Canadiens, on brink of elimination in Round 1, are now hottest team in NHL playoffs

·3 min read
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The Montreal Canadiens were one of the busiest teams during the 2020 offseason and the key theme was acquiring former Stanley Cup winners.

Tyler Toffoli was brought in for a top-six forward role. Joel Edmundson bolstered the defense. Corey Perry was added for the taxi squad and eventually the fourth line. Goalie Jake Allen provided solid backup for Carey Price during a compressed season.

But it took time to come together. The Canadiens had to make a coaching change. They had to take a break because of COVID-19 protocol. They had no fans in their arena until Game 6 of the first round. They were the last to clinch a playoff spot. They were on the verge of elimination, down 3-1 in the first round to the Toronto Maple Leafs, whom they finished 18 points behind.

The Montreal Canadiens are headed to the NHL playoff semifinals after sweeping the Winnipeg Jets.
The Montreal Canadiens are headed to the NHL playoff semifinals after sweeping the Winnipeg Jets.

But now they're the first team to reach the semifinals after rallying past Toronto and sweeping the Winnipeg Jets for a seven-game winning streak in which they have never trailed, a span of nearly 438 minutes.

How the Canadiens reached the third round for the first time since 2014:

Price playing strong

Considering Price's strong play, it's easy to forget he struggled early in the season.

His save percentage was .898 in January and .880 in February. About a week after the Canadiens replaced head coach Claude Julien with Dominique Ducharme, they fired longtime goalie coach Stephane Waite and promoted Sean Burke to director of goaltending in early March.

The moves worked as Price had a 1.87 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in March before he suffered a concussion in April that kept him out until the playoffs.

Price upset the Pittsburgh Penguins last season in the qualifying round and has been a force again this postseason with a 1.97 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.

"With the goaltending that they have, any breakdowns, he's putting out those fires," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. "We just couldn't get the first goal, and that plays into their hands."

Good mix of players

Rookie Cole Caufield didn't make the postseason lineup until the third game.

But the 2021 Hobey Baker Award winner kept Montreal alive in Game 5 by picking off a pass and starting a 2-on-0 break that led to Nick Suzuki's overtime goal. He assisted on Suzuki's power-play goal in Game 3 against the Jets and set up Toffoli's series-clinching overtime goal in Game 4.

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"He’s just a great player," Toffoli said. "Every time the puck is on his stick, something good happens."

Caufield and fellow 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi (four goals) give the Canadiens impressive youngsters to go with their veterans. The Canadiens can roll four lines and get contributions from everyone.

"We’ve got a tight group and we’ve been playing our best hockey when everyone’s doing his own role," said shutdown center Phillip Danault.

GM Marc Bergevin's moves pay off

Toffoli had 28 goals in the regular season and has four goals and 10 points in the playoffs.

Perry is part of an effective line with trade deadline acquisition Eric Staal. Those two and Joel Armia have combined for eight goals and 20 points.

“That line has been one of the best lines in the playoffs, heavy and grinding and big for us,” captain Shea Weber said.

Edmundson has played about 22 minutes a game and defenseman Erik Gustafsson, picked up at the trade deadline, scored the opening goal Monday night.

“We’re all playing our best hockey at the right time and we just have to keep going," Toffoli said.

***

In other action, the Islanders defeated the Bruins on Monday night 5-4 to take a 3-2 series lead.

Tuesday's playoff games

Tampa Bay at Carolina, 6:30, NBCSN. Lightning lead 3-1

Vegas at Colorado, 9, NBCSN. Series tied 2-2

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NHL scores: How Canadiens, on brink of elimination, are surgingnow