Canadiens’ Strength at Centre has them on verge of first Cup Final since ’93
This party started in the bubble 11 months ago with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki achieving a playoff performance. Marc Bergevin said they would make them into pieces he could build the Montreal Canadiens with for 10 to 15 years.
This party is now getting out of hand thanks to these two youngsters and a few veteran centers who have filled a decades-long void that Canadians have had in this position.
The greatest proof of this came in Game 5 of this Stanley Cup semi-final with Kotkaniemi opening the scoring and Suzuki closing it to secure a 4-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights and send them back. Canadians at the Bell Center in a victory in their first final since 1993. It was Kotkaniemi’s ninth goal in his 25th playoff game and Suzuki finished with points 18, 19 and 20 in his 26th.
They are 20 and 21 respectively, but they are wise beyond their age.
“I think last year everyone commented, ‘Are we too inexperienced in the middle? and I think they then proved them wrong, “said Canadiens coach Luke Richardson,” and now they have one more year with that experience from last year’s bubble in the playoffs to see you this year – I think it really shows.
“I know they’re young, but they had that first experience winning a short series and then (they were) really competitive against a good, strong team from Philadelphia. So this year I think it’s translated. They are a year older, they are competitive guys, they are used to winning from their junior teams, so they have that fire. And they show a very good maturity.
But this is not a show for two. It’s just as much about what Phillip Danault does in these playoffs, and just as much about Eric Staal, 36, who flashes back when he was an elite Cup-lifting center with the Hurricanes of Carolina.
On Tuesday, Danault was on the ice for just his second 5-5 goal since Game 4 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He faced Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, Mark Schiefele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyler Connor and Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets, and he took down Golden Knights centers Chandler Stephenson, William Karlsson, Nicolas Roy and Alex Tuch. He’s also a key part of the Canadiens’ penalty kill, who, by successfully eliminating two chances in Vegas in Game 5, have now gone 28 in a row without conceding a goal.
This game was icy with Staal leaping off the bench, sneaking up to the high lunge and burying a perfect pass from Suzuki to bring the score to 2-0 6:32 in the second period. And if you want to get a feel for how that midline has helped bring those Canadians back to the forefront, look no further than what Staal said about this game when asked how Suzuki got it. had organized.
“Not only was Nick’s pass phenomenal and a great look to me, but Phil earlier in the quarter took a big hit to make a play to get him out on our side, then changed, and I was the beneficiary. to be in the right place, “he said of his eighth point of this playoff.” All these little pieces add up, they’re huge and you love to see that stuff in a group because it keep bringing our guys together. ”
Three crosses producing the biggest goal the Canadiens have scored in the playoffs …
If you’re a lifelong fan who’s old enough to remember when Vincent Damphousse, Guy Carbonneau and Kirk Muller helped the team win their 24th Cup, the lack of center depth is at the heart of why he took so long for the team to get back here. Look what Canadians have there now.
Keep in mind that Jake Evans, who was among Montreal’s most effective forwards before Scheifele charged him up and concussed him in Game 1 of Round 2, is in the process of regaining his health. The former seventh-round pick, who spent four years at Notre Dame and then went to Joel Bouchard’s AHL center school, is poised to become a great hub in both directions.
Ryan Poehling, who is in his second season at Bouchard University, is not far behind.
That he’s at the bottom of the pecking order, however, has everything to do with Suzuki and Kotkaniemi progressing as fast as they’ve been.
The Finn, drafted third overall in 2018 before making his debut as the youngest player in the NHL, proves he’s as tough as he is talented. He had an impressive first year, scoring 11 goals and 34 points in a protected role, and lost his confidence in Year 2 before regaining it at Laval and showing himself as a much better player in the Toronto bubble.
Kotkaniemi hasn’t let the ups and downs of this season get to him either.
He may have only had five goals and 20 points in 56 games, was ruled out to start the playoffs and in a tough position on Roy’s game-winning goal in Game 4 to return that series to Vegas in a Tie 2. -2, but he started and ended the game which gave the Canadiens a 1-0 lead in Game 5. It was his fifth goal of the playoffs.
“He plays good hockey,” Suzuki said, with Kotkaniemi sitting right next to him. “He was a little disappointed that he didn’t start the playoffs against the Leafs, but the way he handled it was great. Playing a big role for us, so it’s good that he is rewarded with that goal for us. So I know he will continue.
There is no doubt that Suzuki will too.
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Bergevin called him a key part of the deal that also brought Tomas Tatar and a 2019 second-round pick to Montreal from Vegas when Max Pacioretty was traded to the Golden Knights in the fall of 2018. He didn’t ” has since proven it, with 28 goals and 82 points in his first 127 regular season NHL games and nine goals and 11 assists in his limited playoff time.
“I think he’s super competitive,” Staal said. “Like a lot of the guys on our team, it’s the level of competition that’s really, really high. Obviously the skills are there, the intelligence is there, but you have to have that extra competition and that level of competitiveness to make a difference like it has been. So that’s the # 1 thing that I love about him and all of these guys are our competition and our drive to do whatever it takes.
It’s evident in the Canadiens lineup, but it’s most evident in the guts of this one.
The kids did their part, Danault was an embodiment of Carbonneau and Staal was so much better than the Habs could have hoped he would be when they traded a few middle picks to get him out of Buffalo ahead of this year’s game. deadline for exchanges. He was a completely different player than the one who scored three goals and 10 points with the Sabers before faltering with two goals and three points in his first 21 games with the Canadiens.
Meanwhile, Staal wouldn’t be here if Bergevin hadn’t recognized what he had in Kotkaniemi and Suzuki in last year’s playoffs. Neither did Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Corey Perry, Jon Merrill and Erik Gustaffson. The GM was second in the vote for the Jim Gregory CEO of the Year award, but if he got the most votes for first place, it could have been for that achievement alone.
And the Canadians hope to celebrate Quebec’s Saint-Jean Baptiste by booking their trip to the final, and they will once again depend on Danault and Staal, and will rely heavily on Kotkaniemi and Suzuki.
“These young people are great players and a big part of our squad and our team,” said Staal. “I hope they can follow it up with a big Game 6 at home.”