As the Vegas Golden Knights travel to Quebec for Games Three and Four of this Stanley Cup Semifinal series with the Montreal Canadiens, they do so with far more questions than answers. Why are the starts so slow? Why have the forwards not scored much, and beyond that been inconsistent at best? When will Vegas’ best players be its best players? Is Marc-Andre Fleury a superhero, alien, or alien superhero?
Well, maybe not that last one. But I do wonder…
Unless you’ve lived in Montreal or worked in the NHL as I have, it’s really hard to understand the pressure cooker that is La Belle Provence (and all of French-speaking Canada) for the Canadiens. And even though I’ve experienced it firsthand, I still can’t completely wrap my arms around it. As much as there’s talk of different franchises in different sports being the team, there simply is no relatable comparison because the Canadiens represent both a province and a culture. The pressure is unimaginable to win every time out. Every player is held up to ridiculously high standards for a franchise that expects to win Stanley Cups by the score, although they haven’t hoisted one since 1993.
That is what the Golden Knights are walking into. The fact that Montreal won Game Two on the road creates a narrative that the Canadiens can win the series. Fans and media alike will talk over the next few days about how the pressure of playing “at home” for guys like Fleury, Jonathan Marchessault and William Carrier can be too much to handle. Or how it could overwhelm the team in general, creating bigger cracks in the foundation the Canadiens can exploit. And the legend will grow of how the Habs shut down games once they get the lead and rely on their own superhero in net, Carey Price, to finish the job.
Don’t kid yourself. All of those things could happen. Vegas could feel the pressure. They could stumble out of the gate in Game Three because the Canadiens are going to explode off the line in front of the home fans. There’s a real sense with the Canadiens that after winning Game Two, they could carry that momentum over to Game Three and the entire series because the Golden Knights have thrown everything that can at them… and lost.
In my heart of hearts, I don’t think the Montreal Canadiens can beat the Vegas Golden Knights IF the VGK plays a solid, 60-minute game. But that’s the problem. They’ve rarely done that in 2021. Do they believe they have such an amazing locker room and such talent that they can flip a switch? They’ve been able to do it so far and survive, so what could dispel that belief? Vegas has a lot of confidence in itself to continue onward and “play our game” but that’s not giving enough credit to the team on the other side of the ice. The Canadiens have shut down the high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs and the well-rounded Winnipeg Jets. In beating both those teams the Habs showed they are capable of handling any type of attack. They do it with smart pressure, attacking the puck directly and forcing mistakes. Watch the Canadiens in the defensive zone. There’s almost no penetration into the slot for the Golden Knights. Passing lanes are clogged. Angles are reduced. Time and space – the most important thing in hockey – is severely diminished. It actually takes a physical mistake by a Canadiens player to generate a scoring chance. Not that it doesn’t happen, but they’re disciplined. Rarely do they slip.
If you’re grounded in reality, you know hockey doesn’t work the way “it’s supposed to”. A playoff series will have ups and downs. But it also means you have to be realistic in what’s going on with your team, and I don’t think Vegas is right now.
There are problems with this lineup. They keep asking the same questions and get the same answers, yet expect different results. It almost comes across like this:
P1: Why didn’t this work?
P2: Did it work last time?
P1: No, but it should. So we should keep doing it because it should work.
At this point, the Vegas Golden Knights know they’re in for a long series with the Canadiens. If they remain stubborn and unwilling to change Montreal could very well move ahead in the series. And here’s the dirty little secret of the pressure cooker: the pressure is all on Montreal in Game Three, but if they win, guess what? All the pressure is on Vegas in Game Four, and it will be one hundred times greater than anything they face at home. The time is now for the Golden Knights to pick it up and go after the Canadiens. If they do push back the Flying Frenchman in Game Three, the pressure cooker will turn and devour its own. I’ve seen it happen. The onus is on Vegas to make it happen.