The Montreal Canadiens are playing their best hockey of the season and have taken a commanding 2-0 lead against the Winnipeg Jets.
Entering the series considered nearly even, things took a turn for the worst when Jets forward Mark Scheifele delivered a dirty hit on Canadiens forward Jake Evans in the final minute of Game 1, rendering Evans unconscious. Evans is now recovering, as Scheifele was given a four-game suspension. Scheifele would later complain that he felt four games was excessive, a minority opinion among the near-consensus that the NHL Department Player of Safety actually got it right, for once!
Although Scheifele’s hit and suspension cast an ugly shadow over the first two games, there have been some other curious on-ice developments, and while the pace of this series has been dull in comparison to others (we’re looking at you, Avalanche-Golden Knights) there is still plenty to be examined before the North Division crowns its winner.
Carey Price is outplaying an excellent Connor Hellebuyck
Carey Price has returned to world-class form for the playoffs and if you saw it coming, you’re either lying or part of the Canadiens’ personnel. Price allowed two goals on the first four shots of an AHL injury rehab stint on May 17. Prior to the lower-body injury he suffered in April, the 33-year-old was beginning to show what appeared to be age-related decline, posting a .901 save percentage in 25 games.
Through nine playoff outings, Price has often looked unbeatable and has vaulted near the top of the Conn Smythe Trophy watch — residing alongside Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Nikita Kucherov. He boasts a sparkling .946 save percentage at 5-on-5, a .935 save percentage in all situations to go along with a 2.08 GAA and a 3.24 GSAA.
Price didn’t need to be exemplary in Game 1, he merely needed to be better than Hellebuyck as the Canadiens emerged with a 5-3 victory. Montreal dominated possession in Game 1 but it didn’t necessarily translate to a huge margin in the shot differential (33-30, advantage Montreal) and Price helped secure the victory. This is perhaps underselling Price’s efforts a bit — he absolutely robbed Scheifele with one of the best saves of the playoffs in the opening contest.
Game 2 was a different story. It was a low-event, dull affair, but Price was brilliant in the final 10 minutes, withstanding an onslaught of Jets’ chances. He made 14 saves in the last frame, as the Jets finally showed a sense of urgency that was sorely lacking for the first five periods of the series. This isn’t meant to undersell Hellebuyck, either. He was excellent and gave the Jets a chance to tie it up, as the Canadiens were forced to generate chances almost solely on the counterattack.
Few would have predicted that Price would’ve not only rebounded from his injury to play some of his best hockey of the past half-decade, but also outplay Hellebuyck, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Some of the plaudits surrounding Price — the notion that he’d be Canada’s starter in a best-on-best tournament has more to do with the dearth of top Canadian goalies, as opposed to unqualified praise — appeared to be a bit dated. No longer. Carey Price is back to being a world-class goalie and the Jets desperately have to find a way to solve him.
Canadiens are benefiting from an aggressive counterattack, especially on the penalty kill
Montreal is thriving on the counterattack throughout the playoffs, and whether it’s a function of its game plan or a mere coincidence is nearly impossible to determine — for me, anyways. What’s clear is that the Canadiens are proving to be an opportunistic team that takes their chances well, even if they are often out-possessed for large stretches like they were in Game 2.
Tyler Toffoli scored the lone goal on Friday, and it was the result of an aggressive penalty kill. In one fell swoop, Shea Weber turned and slapped the puck out of his zone, a routine and normal play. Toffoli, however, made an innate read, seeing three Jets forwards out of position and corralled the clearing attempt as if the pass were naturally targeted to him. Artturi Lehkonen was on the same page as Toffoli and flew up the ice, creating an odd-man rush, but served only as a decoy as the Jets had to account for him crashing the net. One nifty toe-drag later and Toffoli got a picture-perfect shot off for the 1-0 lead.
Most teams would be content to kill off the penalty, but the Canadiens routinely push their forwards up the ice in hopes of catching their opponent off-guard, and it’s worked in consecutive series — Paul Byron’s short-handed goal sealed a Game 1 victory over the Maple Leafs in Round 1.
Montreal’s aggressiveness hasn’t come at the detriment of its penalty kill, holding Winnipeg to just one shot with the man advantage in Game 2.
Winnipeg is showing defensive flaws at 5-on-5, too: it is simply allowing Montreal’s defensemen to get long-range passes through the neutral zone without much resistance. Weber, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson in particular are taking liberties with launching pucks up the ice to spring the counterattack, and the Jets’ forwards need to do a better job of tracking back.
Cole Caufield is bound to show up on the scoresheet
Cole Caufield was inexplicably benched for the first two games of the playoffs, but since entering the lineup, he’s shown why he may emerge as the best player from the 2019 draft class, even if his contributions aren’t necessarily represented on the scoresheet.
Caufield is a pass-first playmaker, but he also has a great snap shot and is able to get his shot off from the tightest windows, and has been a prolific scorer at every level of his career. He appeared reticent to shoot throughout his first seven games of the playoffs, but it appears that he’s growing more comfortable with every shift. Alongside Nick Suzuki, as well as Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the future is looking bright for Montreal.
Caufield, Suzuki and Toffoli have posted a staggering 63.64 Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5 through two games in an admittedly small sample of 8:16 and their high-end skill is eclipsing that of the Jets’ highly-touted top-six — well, five, now that Scheifele’s out for the next three games. It’s just a matter of time before the goals start flying in.
Pierre-Luc Dubois needs to elevate his game for the Jets
Winnipeg is a team built around its top-six forwards and in the absence of Scheifele and Paul Stastny, it desperately needs someone to step up. This responsibility almost squarely falls on Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has underwhelmed since being acquired in a trade for Patrik Laine in January.
Extrapolated over a normal 82-game sample, Dubois was on pace for the worst scoring output of his career, and needs to play like a genuine No. 1 centre if the Jets are to have a chance of pulling off the comeback.
Dubois was placed on a line with Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler for Game 2, and it simply didn’t produce anything close to what should be expected from each of the trio. Playing 13:54 at 5-on-5, the line generated a miserable 34.58 expected goals for percentage, with two high-danger chances compared to five high-danger choices against, according to Natural Stat Trick. The roster composition for the Jets was clearly laid out and Montreal’s Phillip Danault is once again making life miserable for a top-line center, fresh off shadowing the reigning Rocket Richard winner in Auston Matthews.
Last summer, Dubois appeared on the cusp of stardom. It’s been quite a descent in the span of a year, and he’ll have to get it together if the Jets are to win four of their next five games.
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