Around 4:30 Friday afternoon, Alain Vigneault leaned over behind the Philadelphia bench and said something to Michel Therrien.
I’m not an expert in lip-reading but I’m pretty sure he was quoting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Who are those guys?”
“Those guys” are your Montreal Canadiens. The guys who turfed Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round. Who played the Flyers to a standstill while losing Game 1 of this series.
Who absolutely owned the Flyers from first whistle to Friday, in one of the most dominant playoff games I’ve seen the Habs play – and I’ve watched most of their playoff tilts going back to 1971.
Should they be in this at all? Who cares?
You play the hand you’re dealt. It’s not about whether the Canadiens should be in this unlikely August playoff hunt, whether they deserve it, whether the NHL made the right decision when it allowed 24 teams rather than 16 into the play-in round.
The decisions have been made. The Canadiens did not make the call. They were simply given an opportunity and they’re making the most of it.
They’ve been so good, they’ve almost rendered this old scribbler mute. Columnists are good at describing bad. When a team stinks, we can think of all sorts of ways to tell you just how rotten they were.
Good is tougher. Good is hard to write. The Canadiens were so good Friday afternoon in Toronto that I was reduced to “wow!”
By my own calculations, I’ve inflicted something like 10 million words on an unsuspecting world – and there may have been a good line or two in there somewhere.
But faced with Jesperi Kotkaniemi scoring the fifth goal in a 5-0 shellacking of a very good Philadelphia Flyers team, the best I could do was…
Back in the spring of 2018, I watched a tall, skinny Finnish kid who looked really good on the ice. The Canadiens were going to be picking third in the NHL draft and they needed a centreman. Grant McCagg thought they should go with Kotkaniemi. I wrote it, one of the few times I’ve pushed for a particular draft pick.
For a while the KK choice looked pretty good. He had the skill, he had the smile. Then he ran into a wall partway through his rookie year and the regular season that ended prematurely in March was an unadulterated nightmare for the young man.
The Canadiens have something on their hands in M. Kotkaniemi. Something big. Something strong. Something talented. Something with heart, toughness, size and skill. It’s like the kid was a caterpillar who went into a cocoon over the winter and emerged as a butterfly.
Someone asked yesterday if I had ever seen a player transform to that degree in such a short time. I’m sure there must be examples out there, but offhand, I couldn’t come up with one.
Add the brilliant skills of Nick Suzuki and centre ice, the hole in the donut for so many seasons, has become one of the solidest positions on the depth chart – and Phil Danault, at 27, is the grey-bearded veteran of the bunch.
All this had to bring a smile to the face of Claude Julien, who is back in Montreal after getting a stent after experiencing chest pains following Game 1. It’s tough for Claude but Kirk Muller is more than capable of stepping in – and Julien did such a superb job preparing this team that Muller was able to take the baton and run with it.
How far can this team run? No predictions here. As flawless as it was, Friday’s win was one game and the series is only tied, 1-1. Vigneault is a helluva coach and you can expect the Flyers to come roaring back.
But what the Canadiens showed Friday is going to be tough to beat. Speed, speed and more speed. No Flyer could touch the puck without feeling surrounded. The Flyers never got untracked because the Canadiens never gave them a chance to get untracked.
When a team is going like this, everyone gets credit. Kotkaniemi, Suzuki, Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia, Artturi Lehkonen, Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Brett Kulak – everyone.
Especially Carey Price. This is locked-in Carey, Olympic Games Carey. It’s a distant goal, still 15 wins away, but you know he has that elusive ring in the back of his mind.
So does Kirk Muller. And he could tell you a thing or two about the Canadiens, and Stanley Cup miracles.