MONTREAL — Artturi Lehkonen scored 1:39 into overtime, Carey Price stopped 37 shots and the Montreal Canadiens advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 28 years following a 3-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.
Cole Caufield and captain Shea Weber also scored, and the Canadiens eliminated the Golden Knights in Game 6 of their semifinal series. Considered mere afterthoughts after entering the playoffs with the worst record, Montreal has won 11 of 13 since falling behind 3-1 to Toronto in its first-round series.
Montreal will make its NHL-leading 35th Stanley Cup Final appearance with a shot to add to its 24 championships. The Canadiens will face the winner of the semifinal series between the defending champion Lightning and New York Islanders. Game 7 is at Tampa Bay on Friday.
“We wouldn’t be here right now if we didn’t believe,” Price said. “We’ve believed this whole time and obviously we’re ecstatic and we have a lot of work left to do.”
The Golden Knights, making their third semifinal appearance in four seasons of existence, fell short of returning to the championship round for the first time since their inaugural campaign in 2018, when they lost to Washington in five games. They were undone by a sputtering offense which managed just nine goals against Montreal following a 4-1 series-opening win, and an anemic power play that went 0-of-17 against the Canadiens.
The game was decided off a faceoff in the Montreal end, and after Price held his ground to stop former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty set up in the left circle. Montreal’s Phil Danault gained the Vegas zone, drew two defenders in the middle and slipped a no-look pass to his left to Lehkonen, who lifted a shot beating Robin Lehner high on the short side.
“Just trying to go high and hit the net,” Lehkonen said. “We’re trying to keep it going one game at a time and not think things too much far ahead. I feel like we showed up today and it’s a big win for us and we have four more to go.”
Lehner stopped 29 shots.
“It (stinks) we couldn’t get over the hump,” Lehner said. “We’re a hard-working group. … I’m proud of everyone in there. We’re right there knocking on the door.”
The Golden Knights twice erased one-goal deficits. Reilly Smith scored 48 seconds after Weber opened the scoring. Alec Martinez tied it again 68 seconds into the third period by converting a rebound after Price was unable to glove Alex Pietrangelo’s shot from the top of the right circle.
Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer turned to Lehner for a second straight time in Montreal, and with the team traveling cross-country for the second time in three days.
Lehner provided Vegas a much-needed lift in stopping 27 shots in a 2-1 overtime win in Game 4 to even the series at 2. Fleury gave up three goals on 25 shots on Tuesday in making his 16th start this postseason.
It marked an unlikely end for a Golden Knights team that finished the regular season with a 40-14-2, record and matched the President’s Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche with 82 points. Vegas overcame adversity in its first two playoff rounds. The Golden Knights squandered an opening-round 3-1 series lead to Minnesota, before winning Game 7. Vegas then fell behind 2-0 in the second round to Colorado before winning the next four games.
In Montreal, it suddenly it feels like 1993 all over again, when a veteran-laden, defense-first team with a star goalie in Patrick Roy made a surprise run and beat the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings in five games to win Montreal’s 24th Stanley Cup.
Canadiens assistant coach Luke Richardson, who was playing for Edmonton at the time, sees various similarities.
“There’s always differences as well,” he said earlier in the day. “But I remember playing against that team, and it was just a tough, stingy team to play against. And that’s what we want to be every night.
Though considered underdogs throughout the playoffs, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin this week said his offseason vision in building the team with a strong defense was better suited for the playoffs than the regular season. Montreal was affected by injuries and a late-season coronavirus outbreak in closing the year 0-3-2 for a 24-21-11 finish.
The Canadiens then opened the playoffs rallying from a 3-1 first-round series deficit against Toronto, before sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in the second round. The Canadiens once again faced adversity in opening the semifinals with a 4-1 loss at Vegas before regaining their defensive-smothering and quick-strike transition offensive identity to win four of the next five.
They’ve played with an unflinching focus, and overcome missing interim coach Dominique Ducharme, who has spent the past four games in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 last week.
Montreal becomes just the sixth Canadian-based team to reach the final since 1994, and first since the Vancouver Canucks lost to Boston in seven games in 2011.
The Canadiens also clinched their berth on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, the Quebec nation’s cultural holiday, and equivalent to the Fourth of July in the U.S.
The area around the Bell Centre was buzzing more than two hours before faceoff, with security officials barring fans from the arena side of St. Antoine Street where players enter. A large crowd of fans were instead limited to watching behind a permanent barrier on the other side of the street. With only 3,500 fans allowed to attend due to COVID restrictions, there were far more people packing the plaza outside the arena.
On the advice of Montreal police, the Canadiens had the fans stay inside the building well after Lehkonen scored.
THE FOUR HORSEMEN?
The Canadiens top-four defensemen might have a new nickname.
Assistant coach Luke Richardson, who played defense over 21 NHL seasons, was discussing Ben Chiarot’s value to the team when noting his 6-foot-3, 225-frame and hard-hitting meshes well with Montreal’s other top-three blue-liners, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson.
“He is a horse,” Richardson said of Chiarot. “Those four Clydesdales play a lot, and they play heavy.”