Golden Knights vs. Canadiens Stanley Cup Semifinal preview

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No. 2 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 4 Montreal Canadiens

Golden Knights: 4-2 to win Stanley Cup Second Round against No. 1 Colorado Avalanche; 4-3 to win Stanley Cup First Round against No. 3 Minnesota Wild; 40-14-2, 82 points in regular season (second in Honda West Division)

Canadiens: 4-0 to win Stanley Cup Second Round against No. 3 Winnipeg Jets; 4-3 to win Stanley Cup First Round against No. 1 Toronto Maple Leafs; 24-21-11, 59 points in regular season (fourth in Scotia North Division)

Game 1: Monday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS)

The Vegas Golden Knights are heavy favorites against the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, but the Canadiens have excelled as underdogs and know the blueprint to defeating the Golden Knights.

“I always personally like to prove people wrong,” Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme said. “When people think that we cannot do something, it’s always nice to … it’s another layer where you can gain energy or another challenge.”

This is a mismatch in many ways.

The Golden Knights led the NHL in wins (40) and goal differential (plus-67) during the regular season, tying for the lead in points (82) with the Colorado Avalanche. This is Vegas’ third trip past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four seasons.

The Canadiens had the fewest wins (24) and points (59) and worst goal differential (minus-9) during the regular season among the 16 playoff teams. This is Montreal’s first trip past the second round since 2014.

At the same time, these teams have a lot in common.

“Montreal’s been very good throughout these playoffs, and they’ll be another big challenge for us,” Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said.

Vegas and Montreal each survived a tough, seven-game series in the first round. The Golden Knights defeated the Minnesota Wild after leading 3-1; the Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs after trailing 3-1. 

Each built confidence in the second round. Vegas defeated Colorado in six games and Montreal swept the Winnipeg Jets.

Each has strong defense and goaltending. The Golden Knights were the top defensive team in the regular season (2.18 goals against per game); the Canadiens are the top defensive team still alive in the playoffs (2.18).

Each has a balanced lineup. Neither team has anyone among the top 10 in playoff scoring. Vegas has 16 players with at least one goal and 20 with at least one point; Montreal has 12 players with at least one goal and 19 with at least one point.

“I think you look at our two teams, and there’s four lines on both sides, six [defensemen] and two great, world-class goalies that are going to go head to head,” Canadiens forward Corey Perry said. “It’s going to be fun.”

Perry played for the Dallas Stars last season when they defeated the Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final in five games. Vegas outshot Dallas 166-118 in the series, but the Stars kept the Golden Knights to the outside and goalie Anton Khudobin was outstanding. The Canadiens have goalie Carey Price.

“They’re going to get their shots,” Perry said. “They’re going to get their opportunities. But it’s a matter of limiting their quality scoring chances, and when they get one, your goalie needs to make a save. And [Khudobin] did that last season. I believe in this room we can do the same thing and frustrate them and just be on the right side of the puck most of the time.”

 

Game breakers

Golden Knights: Forward Max Pacioretty spent his first 10 NHL seasons with the Canadiens and was their captain from 2015-18 before being traded to the Golden Knights on Sept. 9, 2018. He has scored at a greater rate for Vegas than he did for Montreal in the regular season (0.42 goals per game vs. 0.36) and playoffs (0.47 vs. 0.26). Pacioretty led the Golden Knights with 24 goals this season. After missing the last six regular-season games and first six playoff games because of an undisclosed injury, he has scored eight points (four goals, four assists) in seven games.

Canadiens: The bad news for Montreal is it has no offensive superstars. The good news is Vegas cannot focus on one or two players. Centers Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki and forwards Joel Armia and Tyler Toffoli are tied for the Canadiens playoff lead in goals with four each. Suzuki was part of the trade that sent Pacioretty to the Golden Knights. Though he never played for Vegas, he was its second pick (No. 13) in the 2017 NHL Draft, the Golden Knights’ first.

 

Goaltending

Golden Knights: Fleury was voted a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the first time in his accomplished 17-season career this season, and the 36-year-old has carried his performance into the playoffs. He’s 8-4 with a 1.91 goals-against average, .923 save percentage and one shutout in 12 starts. Should Fleury falter or sustain an injury, the Vegas backup is Robin Lehner, a Vezina finalist in 2018-19 who started over Fleury in the playoffs last season.

Canadiens: Price, who won the Vezina in 2015 and was a finalist in 2017, has been right there with Fleury in the playoffs, if not better. He’s 8-3 with a 1.97 GAA, .935 save percentage and one shutout.

Video: A discussion on the red hot Montreal Canadiens

 

Numbers to know

Golden Knights: Vegas led the NHL in blocked shots during the regular season (843) and leads in the playoffs (249). Three Golden Knights defensemen rank in the top four in blocked shots in the postseason: Alec Martinez is first (52). Alex Pietrangelo is tied for second with Scott Mayfield of the New York Islanders (36). Zach Whitecloud is fourth (30). Can Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber make them shy away with his booming shot?

Canadiens: Montreal led the NHL in hits during the regular season (1,585). Expect a physical series with Vegas, which leads the NHL in hits in the playoffs (513). 

 

X-factors

Golden Knights: Alex Tuch is always an easy choice as an X-factor for Vegas. How many teams have a forward with his size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), speed and skill on the third line? A matchup nightmare, he’s tied for third on the Golden Knights with four goals and tied for sixth in points with seven.

Canadiens: This is the type of series in which forward Brendan Gallagher could make a difference. Vegas makes it hard to get the puck to the net, and Fleury is excellent. But Fleury does tend to allow rebounds, so Montreal needs to get inside and capitalize on second and third chances. That’s Gallagher’s game.

Video: Avalanche fall short to Golden Knights’ fourth line

 

They said it

“They’ve been in existence over 100 years longer than we have, which of course means very little when the puck drops on Monday night. … It’s always special when you see those uniforms, and yet business is business. We’ll be excited for the challenge.” — Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon

“I think we weren’t really [favored] to be this far. That’s fine with me. I don’t really care too much about what other people say. I have all the confidence in the world in this group and how we can play. I think we’ve shown that throughout the playoffs, and we have a ton of confidence in everybody right now, and that’s what a winning team needs.” — Canadiens center Nick Suzuki

 

Will win if …

Golden Knights: They come in waves, smother Montreal defensively by pressuring the puck in all three zones, sustain possession with a strong forecheck and get inside in the offensive zone. They cannot just outshoot the Canadiens and expect to win. They must crack Price.

Canadiens: They keep the Golden Knights to the outside, let Price work his magic and use their offensive depth to give him enough goal support.

 

How they look

Projected Golden Knights lineup

Max Pacioretty — Chandler StephensonMark Stone

Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith

Mattias JanmarkNicolas Roy — Alex Tuch

William CarrierKeegan KolesarRyan Reaves

Alec Martinez — Alex Pietrangelo

Brayden McNabbShea Theodore

Nick Holden — Zach Whitecloud

Marc-Andre Fleury

Robin Lehner

Scratched: Nicolas Hague, Cody Glass, Jimmy Schuldt, Logan Thompson, Jiri Patera, Kaedan Korczak, Jonas Rondbjerg, Dylan Coghlan, Carl Dahlstrom, Jack Dugan, Dylan Sikura, Patrick Brown

Injured: Tomas Nosek (undisclosed), Peyton Krebs (jaw)

Projected Canadiens lineup

Artturi LehkonenPhillip Danault — Brendan Gallagher

Tyler Toffoli — Nick Suzuki — Cole Caufield

Paul Byron — Jesperi Kotkaniemi — Josh Anderson

Joel Armia — Eric Staal — Corey Perry

Ben Chiarot — Shea Weber

Brett KulakJoel Edmundson

Alexander RomanovErik Gustafsson

Carey Price

Jake Allen

Scratched: Tomas Tatar, Michael Frolik, Alex Belzile, Jon Merrill, Alexander Romanov, Xavier Ouellet, Cayden Primeau

Injured: Jake Evans (concussion), Jeff Petry (upper body)

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