The Montreal Canadiens were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning, losing 1-0 in Game 5 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday.
The Canadiens finished fourth in the seven-team Scotia North Division, where the top four teams made the playoffs. They defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the Stanley Cup First Round after trailing the series 3-1 and swept the Winnipeg Jets in the second round. Montreal made the Final for the first time since winning the Cup for an NHL-record 23rd time in 1993 with a six-game victory against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
Here is a look at what happened during the 2021 postseason for the Canadiens and why things could be better next season:
Potential unrestricted free agents: Corey Perry, F; Joel Armia, F; Phillip Danault, F; Eric Staal, F; Tomas Tatar, F; Jon Merrill, D; Erik Gustafsson, D
Potential restricted free agents: Artturi Lehkonen, F; Jesperi Kotkaniemi, F
Potential 2021 NHL Draft picks: 11
What went wrong
Playing from behind
The Canadiens went 11-2 after Game 4 of the first round to reach the Final on the strength of a stifling penalty kill and by getting the lead and making their opponents chase the game. Though the kill held up in the Final, Montreal was unable to take a lead until Game 4, then gave it up twice before claiming its only win with Josh Anderson‘s goal at 3:57 of overtime.
Beaten at their own game
The line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow sparked the Lightning and gave the Canadiens fits. Though Montreal got the same kind of energy in the first three rounds, Tampa Bay’s third line delivered a masterful effort, one that was worthy of a repeat Stanley Cup winner.
Though Montreal had enough depth for Kotkaniemi to be a healthy scratch for the last two games of the Final, the lineup was far from fully healthy. Coach Dominique Ducharme missed six games because of a positive COVID-19 test, including the first two in Tampa. He confirmed defensemen Shea Weber (thumb) and Jeff Petry (finger), and forward Tyler Toffoli (groin), were among those playing through injuries, and said forward Brendan Gallagher “had a groin (injury) and more.”
Reasons for optimism
Cole Caufield earned his place in the Canadiens lineup for the foreseeable future from the moment he made his NHL postseason debut in Game 3 of the first round. The 2021 Hobey Baker Award winner voted as the top men’s player in NCAA Division I ice hockey assisted on Nick Suzuki‘s goal in Game 5 against the Maple Leafs for the first of Montreal’s six overtime victories that launched a seven-game winning streak capped when he set up Toffoli’s overtime goal in Game 4 against Winnipeg. The 20-year-old right wing scored 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 20 games to lead all rookies in the playoffs.
Suzuki demonstrated that the Canadiens’ seemingly endless quest for a No. 1 center has yielded promising results. The 21-year-old led them with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 22 playoff games and it’s not a stretch to see him and Caufield giving Montreal top level offensive production, and sooner than many may have projected.
Big Four on defense
The Canadiens are stronger through their top two defense pairs than they’ve been in some time. Weber and Ben Chiarot came together during the playoffs last season, and Joel Edmundson was a solid fit with Petry on the second pair. Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin preaches the value of depth at the position and Alexander Romanov, 21, figures to contribute if he progresses in his development.