Eastern Conference Quarter-finals: Game 6
How to watch
Start time: 7:00 PM EDT / 4:00 PM PDT
In Canada: CBC, Sportsnet (English), TVA Sports (French)
In the US: NBCSN
Streaming: Sportsnet Now
Already missing their head coach for much of the series with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Montreal Canadiens were presented with more adversity fairly early on Wednesday night, losing Jesperi Kotkaniemi just over a minute into the second period after a boarding major resulted in a game misconduct.
The loss of what has arguably been the team’s best forward this post-season made the Habs’ attempt to avoid elimination that much more difficult, especially when the Flyers used that five-minute advantage to get out to a 2-1 lead, but Montreal used the ejection as motivation to get the game tied, and eventually grab the final lead on a great bit of work between Jonathan Drouin, and Nick Suzuki.
In the minutes after the winning goal, Matt Niskanen decided to take out his frustrations on Brendan Gallagher, cross-checking him in the face as Gallagher attempted to cycle the puck. As he does, Gallagher played through the pain he was experiencing, which was later revealed to be from a broken jaw, and was on the ice for a lengthy shift as the Habs closed the game out to stay alive in the playoffs.
The Philadelphia team that questioned the Canadiens putting out top offensive players in a Game 2 blowout decided that they needed to make a statement after an empty-net goal. Sean Couturier made sure to get in the path of Artturi Lehkonen as the Canadiens winger was going to celebrate the big win with teammates, knocking him to the ice, drawing a big crowd, and earning himself a penalty. Despite Muller sending out his C unit on the last-minute power play, the remaining seconds found the Flyers trying to goad the depth players into altercations.
After a busy day of news, the dust settled with a few things determined for Game 6. Kotkaniemi won’t face any more discipline for his hit on Travis Sanheim, while Niskanen will sit out tonight’s contest after getting suspended for a single game. Gallagher ends up the worst off, needing surgery to repair his jaw after the cross-check, and out for at least the duration of this series. It adds a bit more for the Habs to overcome, but so far this post-season they’ve been up to that challenge.
Tale of the Tape
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The heart-and-soul winger will certainly be missed, and the Habs’ odds of pulling out another victory drop without him available, but the Canadiens will have their full centre depth back for Game 6, and that’s proving to be a difficult thing for the Flyers to handle at five-on-five — at least when the Canadiens have a lead to work with and Philadelphia can’t just descend into shutdown mode.
Ironically, it’s been in the games that Montreal has been able to dictate the matchups that they’ve struggled to make any impression in this series, and that will be the state of things once more this evening. With last change in Games 3 and 4, the Canadiens didn’t find a single goal. They’ve averaged 3.67 in the three games when they had to make those personnel decisions first.
Now with five games to see what the Flyers have to counter with, Montreal will have a better handle on what to expect and how to take advantage. One of the keys has been to incorporate the defencemen into the neutral-zone transition, sending four players against a trap designed to stop three.
On Wednesday night, the defencemen were doing an effective job of getting the puck out of their zone with control, bypassing the first layer of the Flyers’ defence and giving the forwards less work to do to go on the attack.
Vigneault may try to be more aggressive on his forecheck to counter that, but now that even Shea Weber is composed and precise in his puck-moving, joining his partner Ben Chiarot whose transition game has gone unheralded, that plan could quickly backfire on the home side. The pairing of Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak has been the best for Montreal, with impressive underlying stats and the top ice times to go with it. And the third duo of Victor Mete and Xavier Ouellet has quietly been effective in this series as well — or at least it was quiet before Ouellet’s heads-up play to set up the opening goal while killing a penalty on Wednesday night.
The Canadiens have a more reliable group of defencemen (especially with Niskanen taking himself out of the lineup), a deeper pool of centres, and the better goaltender. With Joel Armia getting back into the offence, there’s an argument to be made that they can match what the Flyers have to offer on the wings as well.
It was clear that Montreal’s roster wasn’t as outmatched as some — included many of us — expected heading into the post-season, and now we’re seeing that when all five skaters play as a unit on the ice, there are few weaknesses that can be exploited. If the team can play that same style today, there’s a real possibility the Habs will get the series to Game 7.
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