Canadiens save their best for last in dominant sweep of Jets

·7 min read

The Montreal Canadiens are the first team to punch their ticket to the semifinals, a feat that's all the more impressive when you consider their series was the last of the four quarterfinals to get underway. 

There's no need for further preamble, as the Canadiens impressively swept the Winnipeg Jets, finishing off their four-game triumph on Monday night. 

Here are five takeaways from the Canadiens' resounding win. 

Canadiens saved their best performance for last

Don't be fooled by the 3-2 scoreline, the Canadiens flat out dominated the Jets in Game 4, with both the eye test and analytics confirming their superiority, despite the game going to overtime. It went to an extra frame because of Connor Hellebuyck, the lone Jets player who can be absolved of real blame for their shocking four-game sweep. 

Montreal posted an absurd 67.74 Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5, generated 27 scoring chances compared to Winnipeg's 17, posted 14 high-danger chances versus Winnipeg's nine, and did an excellent job of suppressing chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. Logan Stanley beat Carey Price twice in the span of three minutes during the second period, with the second goal Price's lone blunder, but aside from the improbable burst of offence, Winnipeg went out with a whimper. Price only had to make 14 saves, and though he's emerged as one of the best storylines of the playoffs, the Canadiens didn't need a banner performance from him Monday. 

All four Montreal forward lines contributed heavily in the series. During Monday's opus, Artturi Lehkonen, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher created 14 shots in 13:04 and were on the ice for just two shots against, completely running the Jets off the ice. 

None of Winnipeg's adjustments worked. It experimented with moving Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois through the lineup with no luck at all, and the combination of Dubois, Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perrault, in particular, was a disaster. 

It may be cliché, but the Canadiens really are improving as the playoffs march onward. 

Dubois will take majority of the blame, but he's not alone

The proverbial axe will have to fall on someone, and Pierre-Luc Dubois is the likely target, but Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor have to wear this loss as well.

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Let's start with Dubois, whose struggles we detailed in our mid-series recap. Dubois was a split second too late on Tyler Toffoli's overtime winner, losing his man and failing to recover as Cole Caufield wired a perfect pass across the goalmouth, sending the Bell Centre into pandemonium. Dubois, who was traded for Patrik Laine in January, registered just one assist in the series and regressed into an outright liability in Game 4. It's going to be a long summer ahead, but the 22-year-old didn't play like a burgeoning star in his first year in Winnipeg. 

Although Dubois should rightly be criticized for an underwhelming series, he wasn't the Jets' most disappointing player. That would be Wheeler, Winnipeg's second-leading scorer behind Mark Scheifele during the regular season, who finished the series against the Canadiens without a single point. Do the analytics bail Wheeler out? Not at all. Winnipeg held a 33.55 percent share of the expected goals when its captain was on the ice at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. The complete lack of output is downright embarrassing. 

Connor recorded two assists on Stanley's improbable brace in Game 4, and though he technically did record three points in four games, this wasn't the quality of play you'd expect from a player who was nearing a point-per-game pace in the regular season. 

Nikolaj Ehlers is the most difficult player of the quartet to assess. The Athletic's Murat Ates noted that the Jets outshot the Canadiens 9-2 when Ehlers was on the ice in Game 3, but his ice time didn't correspond accordingly. In some respects, he's often Winnipeg's most dangerous player. But coming off injury, Ehlers didn't generate a single point, either. He won't be in the headlines, but it's a sorely disappointing result. 

Dubois, Wheeler, Connor and Ehlers combined for 41.1 percent of Winnipeg's regular season goals. This simply won't do in the playoffs. 

Corey Perry, Joel Armia and Eric Staal bullied the Jets' defense

We regret to inform you that Corey Perry is back at it, again. 

All half-jokes aside, Perry, Joel Armia and Eric Staal bullied Winnipeg's defenders in the lower third of the offensive zone, in a similar vein to a late-1990s NBA centre against an undersized big. Montreal's nominal fourth line ran the low cycle to perfection, boxed out Winnipeg's hapless defencemen, and it culminated in a monster two-goal, three-point performance from Armia in Game 3. 

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This is just one example, but Perry, one of the defining net-front specialists of his era, easily fends off a cabal of Jets defenders before tucking the puck in calmly. There has to be more resistance from the Jets, but there simply wasn't. 

Winnipeg's defence was never its strength, widely considered its weak point in trying to make a sustained playoff run. With Winnipeg's forwards often failing to track back, or allowing long-range passes through the neutral zone going uncontested, the Perry-Armia-Staal line ate the Jets alive. Some parts of hockey are unquantifiable, but from the eye test, this was a resounding win for the veteran line. 

Montreal's supposed liabilities shone in Game 4

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 07: The Montreal Canadiens celebrate an overtime victory against the Winnipeg Jets in Game Four of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell Centre on June 7, 2021 in Montreal, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Winnipeg Jets 3-2 in overtime and eliminate them with a 4-0 series win.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
It was a well-rounded team effort from the Montreal Canadiens in their four-game sweep of the Winnipeg Jets. (Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Montreal's bottom pair defencemen have often been considered liabilities, as Brett Kulak and Erik Gustafsson have received limited playing time in an effort to mitigate risk. During Game 4, Kulak was solid, while Gustafsson quietly was one of the best players on the ice during his 8:33 playing time. 

Kulak posted the primary assist on Artturi Lehkonen's second-period goal and was solid all night, with his underlying numbers, for one night anyways, suggesting that Dominique Ducharme can trust him a bit more going forward. 

Gustafsson scored the game's opening goal on the power play, and though he hasn't completely earned Ducharme's trust, this series ought to go a long way in ensuring they can spell Shea Weber and Jeff Petry for small stretches against an incoming juggernaut in Round 3. 

How will the Canadiens fare against Avalanche or Golden Knights?

Montreal deserves due credit for its impressive sweep of Winnipeg, but its incoming opponent will be its toughest test yet by far. 

Colorado led the league in almost every analytics category this year, but you don't need that to appreciate its greatness. Nathan MacKinnon has been the best player in the playoffs, and in the regular season they could've had seven all-star candidates. This is the fastest, most potent, and arguably best shot-suppression team in the NHL with a Vezina finalist in goal. And Vegas may be even better.

Vegas has all of its lines rolling at the moment, the best goaltending tandem one could possibly conceive in the cap era and Mark Stone is a two-way force unlike any other in the playoffs. The Golden Knights have possibly swung the momentum back in their favour for good. 

So, how will the Canadiens fare? Although they will be the underdog, the Canadiens may not be in over their heads. They aren't expected to have the majority share of possession and the counter-attacking principles and discipline they've employed may serve them well when faced with limited opportunities. We'll have to see what lies ahead, but the Canadiens have been counted out before and there is at least some reason for optimism, or at least avoiding the prospect of outright dread. 

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