Montreal 6, Carolina 5 (20T)
Wow. What a wild one that one was.
Yesterday, the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes played what was probably the finest hockey game in a while- and the finest I’ve ever seen- in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series. In a game that featured more drama and cliffhangers than a Hollywood blockbuster, the Canadiens overcame a blown three-goal deficit to win 6-5 on Michael Ryder’s double-overtime goal, taking a 2-0 series lead over a Hurricanes team that is quickly unravelling.
“We stuck with the same plan, we kept believing,” Canadiens centre Mike Ribeiro told ESPN. “It was a great game to watch, I’m sure, for everyone.”
He probably couldn’t have said it better. After the Canadiens staked out a 3-0 lead in the first period off some erratic play by Carolina starting goaltender Martin Gerber, the Hurricanes found their “on” switch in the second period. Gerber- who allowed three goals on 13 shots- was pulled from the game in favour of former first-round draft pick Cam Ward, but it was the previously dormant Carolina forwards who put Carolina back in the game. 1:42 into the second with the Hurricanes buzzing around the net of Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet, Matt Cullen’s centering pass got a lucky bounce of Huet’s misplaced stick to cut the Montreal lead to 3-1. After that goal, the Hurricanes were virtually unstoppable; continually buzzing along the ice with the Canadiens repeatedly in footraces they had no chance of winning. It comes as no surprise that with the increasing pressure- and a span of 3:05 worth of Montreal penalties- that Carolina’s Rod Brind’amour found the back of the net halfway through the second period to cut the deficit to 3-2. Brind’amour’s goal was similar to Cullen’s goal in that it was on the doorstep, being a redirected centering pass past a helpless Huet, who now looked extremely vulnerable down low. It was a fabulous display of hockey, with the Hurricanes displaying the run-and-gun form that brought them to within a point of the top-ranked Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference.
The Hurricanes sustained their form in the third period, scoring 33 seconds in the third period off yet another redirected centering pass, this time off the stick of Ray Whitney. 42 seconds later Brind’amour again found the back of the net with a nifty wraparound that handcuffed Huet that catapulted Carolina to its first lead of the game and of the series. The Hurricanes’ goals- coming only after 1:15 of the third period- both also came on the powerplay, with Montreal’s Alexander Perezhoghin and Francois Bouillion both in the box from two late second-period penalties, causing the CBC’s Don Cherry after the third to criticize the Habs, telling them “they should be ashamed of themselves” for taking the penalties and essentially handing the game to the Hurricanes. While I think the Habs didn’t help their situation here with their penalties, they literally had no answer for the continued Carolina pressure. The Hurricanes just seemed to race up the ice unopposed with the Canadiens continually in a hopeless pursuit, and when the ’Canes were on their game- as they were in the second and early in the third- their passing game was in a deadly synchronicity. This is what allowed them to exploit Huet’s weakness in covering the bottom of the net, because each of those centering passes were dead on to the stick of a hungry Carolina player.
However, time would not be on the Hurricanes’ side. They still had 18:45 of the third to kill, and as the third wore on, it became apparent that the Hurricanes’ footrace wouldn’t hold up for long. The Canadiens- having realized that their penalty trouble gave Carolina the room to operate- realized that with five players on the ice they might be able to set up an impregnable wall that could stop the Carolina rushes before they got dangerous. They played a poise and composure that CBC play-by-play announcer Jim Hughson noted was just like their coach, Bob Gainey, which contrasted with the frantic pace the Hurricanes were by now desperate to keep up. The Canadiens’ poise and patience wore on the Hurricanes, as well as Carolina’s refusal to dump the puck into the Montreal zone, as Carolina’s roaring attack was stopped time and time again at the Montreal blueline like barbarians trying to scale the Great Wall of China. The Canadiens would later turn their defence into offence, springing loose Alexei Kovalev and Richard Zednik who scored 36 seconds apart halfway through the third to hand Montreal back the lead at 5-4. Both goals came off bad angles near the goal line over Ward’s left shoulder, “goal scorer’s goals” as TSN’s Jay Onrait called them. Suddenly, a game in which Carolina looked in control suddenly became a topsy-turvy mess, with a Canadiens team that wasn’t supposed to be winning somehow in the lead.
Of course, just how time was against the Hurricanes, so too was it against the Canadiens. With Peter Laviolette pulling Ward for the extra attacker unusually early at 18:06 of the third, Carolina’s Cory Stillman connected on a one-timer from just inside the left face-off circle to knot the score at 5. Just before Stillman’s goal, the CBC’s Harry Neale commented that Laviolette “had to take a chance to get a chance”, and Laviolette’s gamble paid off. The Hurricanes were re-energized heading to overtime, looking to run-and-gun Montreal into submission.
It very nearly worked. The Hurricanes came out flying to start the overtime period, racking up a 7-1 shot advantage halfway through the period. Their best chance of the period came when Craig Adams almost jammed the puck around Huet’s left pad, but Huet- learning from his mistakes against Brind’amour and Whitney- got his skate on the puck in time, prevent Adams from converting a goal he knew from his reaction afterwards he should have had. However, the Hurricanes stunted their momentum with two penalties before the ten-minute mark of the overtime period, and the one shot Montreal did have was very nearly the one that ended the game. This shot came on the Canadiens’ second power play of the overtime period eight minutes with Michael Ribeiro almost jamming the puck past the skate of Ward, who quickly smothered the puck to prevent a second chance.
If there was a turning point in the hockey game- besides Ryder’s overtime winner and the 3-0 Montreal first period lead- it would have been Carolina’s inability to wrap up the game following Tomas Plekanec’s interference call on Cullen. The Hurricanes’ power play, which had been phenomenal all game, suddenly couldn’t get any shots past Huet, with barely any coming from in close. They spent a good chunk of the power play setting up the shot instead of taking it, with the Hurricanes displaying none of the confidence that allowed them to storm to the lead to start the third. Predictably, the Canadiens killed off the penalty, and with it, any chance of a Carolina victory.
The death knell came in the second overtime period. The Hurricanes, for their part, generated some chances but most were tentative and easily stopped by Huet. The Canadiens- who probably had more energy since they didn’t play at full speed like the Hurricanes did- waited for their chances, and on a rush two minutes into the second overtime period, Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins and Ryder set up a triangle that arched from behind the net to Ryder that ended the game. The tic-tac-toe passing play was extremely quick and caught me (and probably Ward) off-guard, sending the Hurricanes into a hole and the Canadiens ready to fill it up.
Looking at the game, it was easy to see why the Hurricanes lost. Montreal displayed in Game 1 that it had the horses to run with the Hurricanes’ gunners and the ability to shut them down, and showed in Game 2 that if they needed to run with the Hurricanes they could. They also showed patience and composure, refusing to give up when momentum clearly swung Carolina’s way, playing a smart positional game that allowed them to contain the Hurricanes and ensure that if things did get wild, they wouldn’t get away. The Hurricanes, by contrast, refused to come up with any counter to Montreal’s wall, insisting on ramming into defenders when the Canadiens wouldn’t give an inch. The Hurricanes made it easy for them to be coached against, since all the Canadiens needed to do was set themselves up at the blueline and they would be able to stop the Carolina rushes, since Carolina wouldn’t dump the puck in behind them. They had to rely on power plays to generate chances because that opened up the ice for their attack, and while the Hurricanes were able to hit their groove in spurts, they played without any of the confidence and poise the Canadiens had. They seemed like a racecar driver who always has his foot on the pedal, unable or unwilling to let their foot off even if it means hitting a wall.
This isn’t to say that the Canadiens didn’t win the game deservedly- they did. Many teams would have folded under the pressure of the Hurricanes, but the Canadiens didn’t relent, choosing to wait until the Hurricanes gave them the chance to respond. The result was a splendid victory that puts a stranglehold on the series, which now shifts back to Montreal. The Canadiens played like a Stanley Cup winner, and, dare I say it, they may have just proven themselves capable of taking the silverware home in June, a relief for long-suffering Canadiens fans who have now had to endure their longest drought without the Cup. In the process, they played in one of the NHL’s finest games in a while- if not ever- with the fact that Montreal was in it being a worthy honour for a team as rich in history as the Canadiens. Carolina and Montreal represented the clash of the old (Canadiens) and the new (Hurricanes), with both putting on a show that won’t be repeated for a while. In the process, Montreal showed why they’re the winningest team in NHL history playing with a championship-level poise that left Carolina in the dust. In the meantime, Carolina have shown themselves as mere pretenders, being a team that may look like a winner but, when faced against a real winner, they wilt like a weed, and they only have themselves to blame.