Pete DeBoer grew up in Toronto. He was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs. It has now been 16 seasons since the Maple Leafs have even been out of the first round.
He’s now coaching in his third consecutive NHL semifinal, and second with a franchise that has won more in four years than said Maple Leafs.
The Golden Knights are back in the NHL’s version of the final four for the third time in their four-year history. It’s become commonplace over the past four years that the Golden Knights make a deep playoff run, and in certain circumstances, it’s become expected.
“It’s hard to make the playoff in this league, it’s hard to win a series,” DeBoer said moments after dispatching the Colorado Avalanche. “What these men here have accomplished is really unreal.”
It seems like forever ago that the Golden Knights were on the doorstep of winning the Stanley Cup in Year 1. It also feels like forever ago that Vegas was playing in a bubble in Edmonton and fell short in the Western Conference Final against the Dallas Stars last fall.
Time has this weird sense of adaptation that loops everything together. The last 16 seasons for Toronto, for example, have constructed this never-ending loop of misery and annoyance that the Leafs are not the epicenter of Canadian hockey.
The key word is Canadian. Except change the last ‘a’ with an ‘e’ and you have the darlings of the North Division awaiting the Golden Knights in the battle for the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl.
The Montreal Canadiens are the last team in the North Division standing after an unprecedented run to the final four. Montreal rallied from 3-1 down to knock out the mighty Maple Leafs, and then followed with a resounding sweep of the Winnipeg Jets in the second round.
With what the world has gone through in the past 18 months, an unofficial Western Conference Final featuring a 4-year-old franchise and a 100-plus-year-old organization that normally resides in the Eastern Conference is somehow not the most compelling storyline.
“You’re foolish if you look at their record and make a judgment on them,” DeBoer said. “They’ve beaten two really good teams in the last seven games. They’ve been lights out and have gotten to another level. You’ve got a lot of respect for their game and how they’re playing. It’s going to be a great test.”
How we got here
Golden Knights: Defeated Minnesota Wild in seven games in first round, defeated Colorado Avalanche in six games in second round.
Canadiens: Defeated Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in first round, swept Winnipeg Jets in second round.
Who wins the trade?
I turned on the ‘31 Thoughts’ CarCast the other day and Jeff Marek asked Elliotte Friedman the over/under for how many times this will be talked about in the next week and a half.
“Eleventy billion,” Friedge says.
Allow us to break the ice.
This was always meant to be a joke. You never really thought that these two teams would actually meet in the playoffs, if not for a meeting much further down the road. The odds of the Golden Knights reaching another Stanley Cup Final? No question. Montreal making a deep run? Maybe, but not right now.
So here we are. We’re getting an early answer as to who won the trade.
The deal for Max Pacioretty in the months following the Cup Final run set the Vegas contending run in motion. General manager Kelly McCrimmon said Friday that the move to get Mark Stone turned the Golden Knights from a “cute story” to a contender.
Getting Stone doesn’t happen unless Pacioretty is in the fold.
“I don’t think it makes any difference who you play in the playoffs,” Pacioretty said. “You’ve just got to treat every game the same way. We had two emotional series, and I’m sure this one will be the same.”
The plan was for the Golden Knights to build around the triplets from the 2017 NHL Draft; they eventually all get called up at the same time and build the core that would be the Golden Knights. But as has always been talked about in this sphere, winning accelerated the timeline. That chronology doesn’t involve young players; and as McPhee said to me following the deal, you don’t make a move unless you’re certain that it’s going to help the franchise, as well as knowing there might be some regret along the way.
In the case of Nick Suzuki, there were always some sense that he should’ve been the untouchable one between him, Cody Glass and Erik Brannstrom. His interchangeable play from center to wing, coupled with a wicked shot and high hockey IQ, made him the one that you could build a franchise around.
“It was a cool experience going to an expansion team, being one of the first players a part of the team,” Suzuki said. “To see what they’ve done over a short period of time is spectacular. They’ve done a good job bringing guys in that really wanted to win.”
If Montreal was going to part ways with its 30-goal-scoring captain, they needed a piece to build the franchise around. Suzuki and Pacioretty both fit each teams’ timeline in a different route.
Fast forward three years later. Pacioretty has found his goal-scoring touch and has become a vital part to Vegas’ top line. Suzuki has become a budding superstar to lead Montreal’s young core.
And in their own way, both have something to prove in this series.
“I’ve played a long time in the NHL and I consider them all great seasons, no matter where I’ve played or what’s happened,” Pacioretty said. “This year, I’ve had a lot of fun with my teammates. We’ve had a lot of success, and we want to keep this thing going.”
Fleury vs. Price
Good luck trying to find a more compelling goalie battle in terms of legacy.
In one corner: A three-time Stanley Cup winner; the third-winningest goalie in League history; a first-time Vezina finalist; one who would (for those still skeptical) cement his Hall-of-Fame legacy with one more trip to the Final, and a legit chance to win.
In the other corner: One of the best goalies this century; a former Vezina Trophy and Hart Trophy winner; one who has never reached a Cup Final but would become Montreal’s greatest son should he make it.
It only seems fitting that in Marc-Andre Fleury’s path to immortality that he would need to go through another tall goaltending pillar. And whatever your prior feelings of Carey Price, he has turned back the clock at the right time, if that’s even possible.
“Carey’s been playing very well for them,” Fleury said. “They’ve been playing very well defensively, not giving up too much time and space especially near their net. There’s a reason why this team is there now. They’ve been really good and it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Price has given up all but 12 goals during the Canadiens’ seven-game winning streak, allowing one goal or fewer three times. His goals saved above expected (5.35) trails only Andrei Vasilevskiy among the four remaining starting goaltenders; his 3.96 GSAx at 5-on-5 is also not that far off from Vasilevskiy.
Meanwhile, Fleury has been Fleury. After getting Game 1 of the Colorado series off, Fleury only allowed three goals twice in five games against the Avalanche; the 3-2 overtime loss in Game 2, and the 6-3 series clincher in Game 6.
“Flower is an awesome goaltender and an awesome dude,” Price said. “His work ethic speaks for itself. As far as trying to solve him, I don’t think there’s any secrets. It’s going to be traffic, deflections and getting to the net. His resume speaks for itself.”
For as much as the masses want to jump the gun and anoint the Golden Knights the winners of this series, Price is the reason why a lot of these games will be close. There would be no surprises if there were plenty 3-2, 2-1 games because of the elite goaltending that will be on display.
A century’s worth of history
There is a ‘cool’ factor to this matchup in relation to the history.
It might get boring quickly to figure out what our ancestors were doing in 1917, while the Canadiens became a thing.
For example: The city of Las Vegas was only 12 years old when Montreal started in the NHL. There is venturing guess that the city of Las Vegas didn’t know what hockey, or even ice, was in 1917. Never mind the fact that 100 years later, the city of Las Vegas would have said NHL team and have said ice at its disposal.
But throw out the walkers and the power scooters for this one.
The Golden Knights might not have legendary Montreal captains to speak to the team — no disrespect to Deryk Engelland, although he might be a worthy option — but there’s enough experience in the Vegas room to get the job done in 2021.
That’s the reason why Vegas got the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, Stone, Robin Lehner, and Pacioretty. The Golden Knights don’t have 23 Stanley Cups to their name, but they have plenty of experience to know how to get there, and put that team on the Cup for the first time.
“I was always a big fan of Montreal growing up, and even through my career, I always keep track,” Fleury said. “They have a huge history. They’ve won many times before. The game’s still played on the ice and with the guys in the locker room. It doesn’t matter if you have  Cups. You just play the game in the moment and the present, and be ready for that moment, and try to win that game. Not think about the future, or the past, and do your best.”
Canadiens projected lineup
Artturi Lehkonen — Phillip 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 Kulak — Joel Edmundson
Alexander Romanov — Erik Gustafsson
Golden Knights projected lineup
Max Pacioretty — Chandler Stephenson — Mark Stone
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith
Mattias Janmark — Nicolas Roy — Alex Tuch
William Carrier — Keegan Kolesar — Ryan Reaves
Alec Martinez — Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore
Nick Holden — Zach Whitecloud
Game 1: Monday at Vegas, 6 p.m. PT
Game 2: Wednesday at Vegas, 6 p.m.
Game 3: Friday at Montreal, 5 p.m.
Game 4: Sunday at Montreal, 5 p.m.
*Game 5: June 22 at Vegas, 6 p.m.
*Game 6: June 24 at Montreal, 5 p.m.
*Game 7: June 26 at Vegas, 5 p.m.
How to watch Game 1
Time: 6 p.m.
Radio: 98.9 Fox Sports FM