NHL Playoff Preview: Montreal Canadiens vs. Vegas Golden Knightsby Carter LaCorte June 12, 2021 2 comments
This year’s modified divisions made for a weird playoff format, and the third round highlights that. It’s not the Conference Finals anymore, we now call it the Stanley Cup Semifinals. It also happens that one of the matchups includes Western and Eastern Conference teams prior to the Cup Finals. These teams also did not play against each other during the regular season: The underdog Montreal Canadiens versus the heavy favorite Vegas Golden Knights.
Related: You can find season recaps from non-playoff teams here.
This will be a duel between two veterans with great reputations. Carey Price had a below-average regular season, but he has more than made up for it in the playoffs. Price has a postseason leading .935 save percentage and a Goals Against Average of 1.97. Since 2016-17, Price has ended the playoffs with a GAA under 2.00 every time, going for the third time this year. Marc-Andre Fleury had a revolutionary season, going from a backup to the Vezina favorite. Fleury had a .928 save percentage and a 1.98 GAA in the regular season. He has allowed some rough goals in the playoffs but he still has a 1.91 GAA. Both goalies will likely be in the Hall-of-Fame one day, so it is hard to distinguish which team has the advantage. Fleury’s regular-season gives Vegas a slight edge.
Montreal has many stable defensemen who can shut down the Golden Knights in Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson, and Ben Chiarot. The real test for them is how they will play without Jeff Petry, who is absent to start the series. Petry is probably the team’s best defenseman and would be a huge loss against a strong Vegas forward core. The Golden Knights are underrated in this category. In the past 16 months, they have built a great top pair, adding Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo. That moved down capable defensemen Brayden McNabb and Nick Holden. Shea Theodore is also one of the league’s best offensive defenseman. With or without Petry, Montreal loses the category.
The Vegas power play was oddly below average this year, ranking 22nd in the league at 17.8 percent. They made it up with the league’s best penalty kill, led by forwards Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson. However, special teams have been a major weakness for the Golden Knights in the playoffs, as they have a 14.3 power-play percentage and a 71.4 penalty kill percentage. Montreal had an elite penalty kill against the Jets in the second round. Overall, they have scored four shorthanded goals, while the rest of the league has six. They also have the top percentage (90.3) with an improved power play. The first win for the Canadiens is on the board.
With Stone and Stephenson on the top line, Vegas already has a great defensive line. Add Max Pacioretty to the left, and they can score even more. Their second line of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson could be a top-line on some other teams. There is a drop-off in the bottom-six, although solid players like Alex Tuch and Mattias Janmark remain. The Canadiens may not have Tomas Tatar in their lineup, but they still have great forward depth. Corey Perry and Joel Armia have been solid all postseason. Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault can match Stephenson and Pacioretty, while Tyler Toffoli and Cole Caufield keep scoring. Also available are Nick Suzuki, Josh Anderson, Artturi Lehkonen, or Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Vegas wins the star power matchup, but Montreal has depth.
Montreal’s defense looks like the big question mark entering the series, meaning that Petry’s return will be a big factor. He seems to be out for Game 1 but should be back before the end of the series. If Montreal wants to win, they need Petry. For Vegas, their captain, Stone, can change a series. He is energetic, and great both ways. He scored the overtime winner in the fifth game of the second round and will battle with Danault for the role of best defensive player in the series, including defensemen.
Dominique Ducharme has had some questionable coaching decisions this postseason, but some have worked out. The same could be said for Knights head Peter DeBoer, who will be fine as long as he sticks with Fleury as much as he can. DeBoer has been in the Cup finals multiple times before, giving him an advantage over the rookie Ducharme, although experience often means nothing.
It’s playoff time, which means it is time to get nuts. No matter who won the Golden Knights’ series against Colorado, everyone would be picking them to beat the Canadiens. But the Canadiens, even on a ton of rest after sweeping Winnipeg, deserve respect. They have won seven in a row, and have the depth to compete. If playoff Price decides to not go away, they have much better odds than most people think.
Series Prediction: Montreal 4-3
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