The Montreal Canadiens are headed home with much promise for the future following their 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Friday.
The loss ended a run that saw Montreal reach the postseason as the 12th and last seed in the Eastern Conference, knock off the fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in a best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifier, and as the No. 8 seed in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round give the No. 1 Flyers almost all they could handle.
The Canadiens’ two goals Friday came from Nick Suzuki, a 21-year-old center and a revelation of Montreal’s postseason. In 10 games, the rookie scored seven points (four goals, three assists), tied with forward Jonathan Drouin for the Canadiens lead.
“It was a first taste of the NHL playoffs,” Suzuki said. “You can take [away] a lot for a young group. For me, it’s a great experience here but definitely I would have loved to keep playing. Come back next year and we know we have that experience behind us.”
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, a 20-year-old center, scored four goals in 10 games, he and Suzuki accounting for eight of the Canadiens’ 23 postseason goals.
For years in search of a commanding center, Montreal seems to suddenly have two, each of them just out of his teens.
“They were big, big parts for us here and I think this surprised a lot of people,” Canadiens captain Shea Weber said of Suzuki and Kotkaniemi. “They had a little bit of a layoff here, kind of a summer for them to do some training, kind of reconfigure. It seems like they came back with a whole lot of confidence and stepped up and scored some huge goals for us.
“Not only that, they played physical. They played hard and did all the right things, so I think they did everything that was asked of them and they’re just going to keep getting better. The future is bright for them.”
The Canadiens entered Game 6 without inspirational leader Brendan Gallagher, a forward who sustained a broken jaw near the end of Game 5 when he was cross-checked in the mouth by Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen. Philadelphia played Game 6 without Niskanen, who on Thursday was suspended one game.
The Canadiens fell behind 2-0 but rallied strongly and pressed the Flyers right to the end.
“It was a group effort,” said Montreal associate coach Kirk Muller, who in Games 2-6 filled in for Claude Julien, who is recovering from heart surgery. “The young kids have progressed through this whole experience and the veteran guys showed how much they love this group and how much they want to lead. I’m really proud of what this group accomplished.”
Three bad bounces doomed the Canadiens on Friday: The Flyers’ first goal deflected off Weber, their second off backchecking forward Arturi Lehkonen, and the winner ricocheting off a goal post and slithering under goalie Carey Price in a pile of bodies.
“Those are the breaks that you get in a winning championship season,” said Price, who in 10 postseason games had a 1.78 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and two shutouts. “You see it every year. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way. Those are the things you can’t control.”
The Canadiens now prepare to leave Toronto, the East hub city, with a young core with priceless experience and a group of veterans already excited about the future that seems brighter than it did when the postseason began.
“I think everybody doubted us out as soon as they announced what the playoff format would be, everyone kind of just X’d us off like we weren’t going to be here,” Weber said. “Everybody showed up. They put in effort this summer, kind of a shortened summer here, and everybody showed up with the same goal in mind.
“I think it just shows that [we] were closer [to success] than people think. I think those guys should be proud of themselves in here. Guys were committed and I’m proud of all of them.”