LAS VEGAS – The climb against the Montreal Canadiens has become a bit steeper.
The only Canadian team with a Stanley Cup shot surrendered a 4-1 loss on Monday in the first of a best-of-seven semi-final against the seeded Vegas Golden Knights.
It was Montreal’s first game away from Canada in 2021, and it took place in front of a loud crowd of 17,884 – a far cry from what COVID-19 restrictions have allowed north of the border all season .
Shea Theodore opened the scoring with his first playoff goal midway through the first period and added an assist early in the second. Alec Martinez, Mattias Janmark and Nick Holden also scored for the home side, and Reilly Smith contributed two assists.
Cole Caufield of Montreal buried the Habs’ lone tally during a power play in the second period.
Carey Price blocked 26 of the Canadiens’ 30 shots and Marc-André Fleury made 28 saves for the Golden Knights.
The Knights controlled Monday’s game almost from the opening faceoff, scoring their first goal with a formidable Theodore receiving shot from the point that beat Carey Price on the stick side.
They made it 2-0 at the start of the second when Theodore rigged a shot and sent it to Martinez, whose face-off circle explosion on a nearly empty net left Price plunging into the crease. in vain.
Price got a measure of revenge moments later when Max Pacioretty fed Mark Stone in a sudden two-on-one scramble, only to be robbed by a spectacular glove save.
Montreal spoiled Fleury’s shutout hopes with the power play at 12:05 when Caufield buried a juicy rebound on a Tyler Toffoli shot for his first playoff goal.
But the momentum was short-lived: Less than a minute later, Janmark made it 3-1 from the edge of the crease as he flipped a drifting shot from Alex Tuch past the taut mat. by Price.
Knights defenseman Holden made it 4-1 midway through the third before Price headed for the bench, a four-minute streak of six-on-five hockey that gave Fleury the opportunity to show up in front supporters.
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The series promises to be an eventful one – nearly every goal-hitting has ended in a scrimmage behind or beside the net, often with frustrated Habs forward Brendan Gallagher in the middle of it.
Even so, the first quarter produced only one power play per team – Montreal failed to capitalize on an appeal against Vegas center Jonathan Marchesseault, then pushed back the man advantage. after Phillip Daneault trained Alex Pietrangelo deep into Montreal territory.
The penalty situation changed quickly in the second.
The second period was just seven seconds old when Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot’s attempt to clear the net caught the net over the glass behind Fleury, a game delay.
Montreal was 1-for-3 with a man advantage and Vegas went 0-for-4.
The top-ranked Golden Knights won the top 40 NHL games in the shortened 56-game regular season and tied Colorado for the league’s highest points total – 23 points ahead of Montreal in the standings .
But the Canadiens have been the underdogs twice in the playoffs before.
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They weren’t expected to beat the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, nor were they favorites to beat the Winnipeg Jets, third, in the second round. . The team silenced criticism in both cases and entered Vegas with a seven-game winning streak that included a Jets sweep.
It’s not all familiar territory for the Habs, however.
The Montreal-Vegas series is the first cross-border clash in the NHL this season, made possible by a federal exemption allowing teams to bypass 14-day quarantine requirements.
Monday’s capacity crowd was a stark contrast to empty Canadian arenas during the regular season and even the 2,500 fans allowed inside the Montreal Bell Center during the playoffs.