TORONTO — Not many people believed the Canadiens could beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in their NHL Return to Play qualifying round series, but Montreal goaltender Carey Price said he was grateful for a chance to prove them wrong.
“We know we backed in and nobody gave us a chance, but we took that with a grain of salt and proved them wrong,” Price said Friday after he made 22 saves to shut out the Penguins 2-0 at Scotiabank Arena. That gave the Canadiens a 3-1 victory in the best-of-five series and a spot in the first round of the playoffs. They will face the winner of Saturday’s Tampa Bay-Philadelphia game in a best-of-seven series.
When the NHL season was paused in March, the Canadiens were on their way to missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season. But they were given a second chance when the NHL came up with a 24-team tournament format and the last team selected for the tournament rode a solid defence to an upset over the more experienced and heavily-favoured Penguins.
A line change by Claude Julien midway through Game 3 Wednesday was instrumental in the series win. He placed defensive centre Phil Danault between Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron. He was looking for solid defence against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they also provided some timely offence.
Byron scored the tying goal in the comeback victory in Game 3 and he set up Lehkonen for the only goal the Canadiens would need Friday.
“Paulie did all the work on that goal,” Lehkonen said. “He carried the puck behind the goal line and got a pass to me and I just had to tap it in.”
Lehkonen said it didn’t take long for the trio to find some chemistry. He noted that he and Danault are together on the penalty-kill, while Danault and Byron have been linemates in the past.
Limiting Crosby and Malkin was a crucial part of the Montreal game plan. Crosby scored in each of the first two games and had an assist in Game 3, while a frustrated Malkin was limited to one assist in the series. It seemed that every time Malkin had the puck, he found Shea Weber or Ben Chiarot in his face.
“It’s a five-man unit out there, but one of our goals was to be hard on their top guys,” said Weber, who added an empty-net goal Friday. “They have a lot of skill and speed, but we have some size on our back end and we wanted to make sure we were physical and taking away their time and space.”
The Danault line did its part by slowing the Penguins’ breakouts.
“We’re just trying to get on them,” Lehkonen said. “We’re a fast team. Paulie’s one of the fastest guys in the NHL so we used that speed to get on their (defencemen) and try to create turnovers.”
“I always felt we had good leadership,” Julien said. “We’re a young team. We had some areas we wanted to see improve during the season and we have an opportunity here in the playoffs. Say what you want, whether it was ignorance from a young group that didn’t know any better, we believed in our team, we’re having fun with it. We’re enjoying the win today, but we have to be even better when the next series starts because we’ll be facing one of the top seeds and we’ll have our hands full.”
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