After the Montreal Canadiens briefly stole home-ice advantage with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 3, the Vegas Golden Knights responded with an overtime victory of their own, downing the Canadiens 3-2 on Sunday.
Here are 4 takeaways from Games 3 and 4.
Don’t let the final score fool you, the Canadiens were far superior in Game 4
Let’s be clear: the final score is the only category that really matters, a notion that the Canadiens will find little solace in. They were the far superior team by almost every objective category and should’ve headed back to Vegas with a commanding 3-1 lead.
Montreal held a staggering 17-1 advantage in high-danger chances at 5-on-5, with a far superior 67.4 percent share of the expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick. It held a 24-19 scoring chances advantage and from the eye test, the Canadiens’ top-six outplayed an uninspired Golden Knights’ group that didn’t operate with a real sense of urgency.
And yet that’s the nature of a sport subject to so much random variation, especially come playoff time. Vegas entered the series with a gulf in talent, and whether real or perceived, sometimes, that’s the difference.
This was Montreal’s most complete game of the series. A similar game script emerged in both Game 1 and 2 where the Canadiens held significant advantages in high-danger chances and expected goals for percentage, most notably in Game 2 where the Canadiens took a 2-0 lead into the intermission. In the opening two games, the Canadiens surrendered the statistical advantage to the Golden Knights for the remainder of regulation — Montreal was indeed much better in Game 3’s overtime frame — and couldn’t sustain their early form.
Sunday night was different. The Canadiens should’ve won this game as their forwards out-duelled the Golden Knights’ more acclaimed top six. The Artturi Lehkonen-Phillip Danault-Brendan Gallagher line particularly shined, generating nine shots against Vegas’s three, holding an 85.46 percent share of the expected goals during 11:24 at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick.
We do our best to understand it, but hockey can be a confusing game, sometimes. Montreal was the better team in Game 4, but the semifinal now comes down to a best-of-three.
Robin Lehner did more than enough to justify his starting role
The ultimate luxury for the Golden Knights is that they can keep a goaltender two years removed from a Vezina Trophy nomination on their bench. Robin Lehner hadn’t between the pipes since May 30, a 7-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. He was more than ready when his name was called upon.
“I got here 2 hours early so I could watch you guys talk shit on Twitter, to motivate me,” Lehner said, according to The Athletic’s Jesse Granger.
I thought the decision to bench Fleury in favour of Lehner was a bit harsh, especially if it was a reaction to his horrific Game 3 blunder, which may have changed the trajectory of the contest. For the record, Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer said post-game it was due to rest.
Fleury posted a .921 save percentage, a 1.97 GAA, and if the Golden Knights were to advance, he’d likely be among the leading Conn Smythe candidates, as their forwards have gone missing in action throughout the semifinal.
And yet, a goalie of Lehner’s caliber should be afforded the benefit of the doubt after a few weeks off. Lehner was outstanding during Game 4 and was the primary reason why the Golden Knights are going home with the series split.
Lehner made several quality saves Sunday, but two stops in particular stand out from the rest. He robbed Eric Staal in the first period after Corey Perry sprawled out past Shea Theodore to set up Staal at the side of the net, keeping the game scoreless.
Montreal led 1-0 entering the third period, as Paul Byron scored a beauty on a partial break to open the scoring. Considering what was at stake, Lehner closing the five-hole on Cole Caufield, who picked up a loose puck and rocketed away from the rest of the Golden Knights, could be one of the turning points of the series.
It’ll be nearly impossible for DeBoer to go back to Fleury from Lehner. It’s a luxury no other coach has, either. Fleury’s benching was a harsh reminder that current form dictates everything in the playoffs, and for the time being at least, Lehner is the man for the Golden Knights.
And he knows it.
Golden Knights aren’t creating quality shots as their top forwards have disappeared entirely
Nobody wants to talk about graphs when having a hockey conversation, but we have to point out that the Golden Knights aren’t getting quality shot attempts off. It’s only when the Golden Knights began to simplify the point of attack that they started having any success at all.
Vegas’s forwards have combined for just two goals in four games, which is simply untenable. Alex Pietrangelo, Alec Martinez and Shea Theodore have all gamely risen to the occasion, and tonight it was Brayden McNabb’s turn to join them on the scoresheet. Pietrangelo was the best player on the ice in Game 2, but this has unwittingly created a problem for the Golden Knights: their forwards aren’t generating quality attempts, while the team tries to create shots from the point and hope for the best.
Montreal was outstanding defensively and didn’t allow Vegas to get any shots within the slot, near the centre of the ice, and the few possessions that the Golden Knights entered the offensive zone with a head of steam, the Canadiens forced their opponent to the outside.
It largely worked. But with just under nine and a half minutes remaining, the Misfits Line finally created a quality chance as William Karlsson was allowed to work unimpeded behind the net, and found a crashing McNabb for the tying goal. They’ll have to do more throughout the remainder of the series, to say nothing of Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, both of whom have been soundly disappointing since Game 1.
The overtime winner was the result of taking the simple route, too. Instead of being hesitant to create, or lobbing the puck back to the point, Pacioretty threw the puck towards the net, and as they say, good things happen. Nicolas Roy whacked away at a pair of rebounds, tucking the puck over a sprawled out Price from outside the crease for the game-winner. Roy’s winner wasn’t pretty, but the ugly goals count just as much as the highlight-reel ones.
The officiating was once again atrocious, this time against the Canadiens
The officiating was atrocious on Sunday, and Chris Lee shouldn’t referee a contest for the rest of the playoffs.
Alex Tuch body-slammed Phillip Danault to the ice in plain view of the officials, and there was no call. Brayden McNabb threw a punch at Nick Suzuki, and again, nothing was called. Lee saw both incidents in full view, and decided not to do anything, an overarching symptom of the NHL’s officiating problem, which has unfortunately overshadowed three quality rounds of playoff hockey.
More to the point, and perhaps more damning, no one knows what constitutes a penalty anymore, or when an infraction will be called, with the referees often accounting for the game situation, instead of going by the letter of the law.
Four penalties were called during Game 4 and two incidents were questionable, at best: Nick Suzuki was flagged for a weak hooking penalty, while Shea Weber was penalized after Tomas Nosek took a few runs at him, both players earning off-setting minors.
In the interest of disclosure, I often do a poor job of hiding my Maple Leafs fandom, but the officiating was so awful, it has to be noted that while the Canadiens weren’t robbed of the result they deserved because of the officials, they should demand Chris Lee sit out the duration of the playoffs.
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