In an unusual year for hockey, to say the least, history will be made starting tonight as the Vegas Golden Knights take on the Montreal Canadiens for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. With no conferences in the league this year, the Golden Knights and Canadiens are playing for the Clarence Campbell Bowl, usually awarded to the winner of the Western Conference.
The Golden Knights have not played against the Canadiens at all in this regular season, and have only beaten the Habs once in six regular-season tries. They’ve lost twice in regulation and three times in overtime. Not a great record, but in my opinion these games in no way matter for this series.
So not having seen the Montreal Canadiens in over a calendar year now, what can Vegas Golden Knights fans expect? What is driving this deep playoff run by Montreal?
First off, the veterans are huge for the Canadiens. Not only Carey Price, who has done everything he’s been asked to do in rallying his team down 3-1 to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, and then in a four-game sweep of the Winnipeg Jets. No, this Canadiens team has really seen major contributions from Tyler Toffoli, Corey Perry and Eric Staal up front. On defense, Shea Weber is back and (mostly) healthy. Toffoli has a Stanley Cup pedigree and leads the team in scoring (4-6-10), while Corey Perry has his own Cup plus a Hart Trophy and Rocket Richard Trophy from 2011. Plus he’s not afraid to spear someone in the junk if he has to. (Perry has done this several times. I was calling the game he speared Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne in the groin during the 2011 playoffs. I am not a Corey Perry fan.)
Staal is slower than he used to be, but still contributes and leads. Weber is more dangerous when he’s angry, which I also know from seeing him in Nashville. We used to behind-the-scenes refer to “Angry Shea” as the guy you didn’t want to play against. When he’s riled up, he could rip you in half with his bare hands. The VGK should let that sleeping dog lie.
But there’s more to this team than veteran contributions.
What’s key to the Canadiens is how this team attacks and defends the slot. Much like the Colorado Avalanche, the Canadiens like to use diagonal routes or passes to the net area, getting in with speed and making it tough to defend those angles. The team also has speed on the wings and can drive towards the net from the wall with regularity.
To prevent Montreal from being able to attack effectively, Vegas must do a couple of things. First, they must control the speed of the neutral zone in both directions. Vegas also likes to play with speed and if they can get pucks deep and make the Montreal D turn and chase the puck, that’s ideal. It prevents them from turning the puck right back through the neutral zone on the counterattack. Plus getting things nailed down defensively means stepping up on puck carriers and forcing quicker decisions with the puck while getting through the neutral zone.
Second, gap control for the defense. If you give up too much room to the Montreal Canadiens forwards, they have plenty of time to create. They can cut towards the middle of the ice easily and generate higher quality scoring chances while sending in other forwards towards the net. If you play them too close, you run the risk of getting beaten with speed or a clever move. It will be tricky, but the Golden Knights must be spot-on with gap control for oncoming forwards.
Finally, the centers on each VGK line must be active. They will need to really scramble back to help out the defense as the Habs throw numbers into the zone to generate confusion and opportunity. The backcheck might be the key for the entire series on both sides, preventing scoring chances that otherwise would end up in the back of the net.
Montreal also does a great job of controlling the slot in its own zone. They are able to shut things down and restrict cross-ice passes with active sticks and bodies in lanes. It makes opponents wheel up and down the wall, trying to find an opening with which to penetrate the defense. To beat this, the Golden Knights are going to have to do well with movement off the puck, constantly changing up the lanes to get pucks through. Montreal does not employ a static defense, they move well and are very alert. It’s going to take some smart play to find openings against their setup, but the VGK showed against both the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche that they can open things up and find the net.
At the end of the day, whoever controls the middle of the ice is going to be the team that comes out on top. Do not look past the Montreal Canadiens, they are here for a reason.