The Canadiens Wednesday night were like Harry Houdini, operating in a Chinese water torture cell designed specifically for them by perpetually inept NHL referee Chris Lee.
Like Houdini, their ankles were locked into a frame and they were dangled upside down over a tank of water, then lowered head first into the water and locked in place. Yet (also like Houdini) they somehow escaped.
They survived the terrible five-minute major and game misconduct handed to Jesperi Kotkaniemi for a hit on Travis Sanheim – even though Sanheim clearly saw Kotkaniemi coming and deliberately turned to put himself in a vulnerable position, meaning it was a legal hit according to the very clear language in the NHL rule book.
(That the play was reviewed and sanctioned by the Toronto War Room merely reinforced what you already know about that pathetic institution.)
The Canadiens survived the two goals Jakub Voracek scored during the five-minute major. They survived the officials refusal to call a similar five-minute major on Matt Niskanen’s cross check that may have broken Brendan Gallagher’s jaw.
They even somehow survived Kelly Hrudey’s hridiculous indignation after Nick Suzuki tapped the helmet of Flyers goalie Carter Hart – another of those “unwritten rules” violations like San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. hitting a grand slam homer on a 3-0 pitch. The NHL and MLB have their problems but they are big-time pro sports, yet guys like Hrudey whine like little-league parents when something doesn’t go their way.
Whatever, the Canadiens survived it all and won. The 24th seed going into the play-in round and they have now won five more games than you thought they would win. They escaped like Houdini after the Flyers had them down by Alain Vigneault’s favourite score, 2-1, and they lived to fight another day.
They did it by playing high-event hockey. By making things happen. By finding the chinks in Hart’s armour. By refusing to let Chris Lee’s blatant bias get them down. By ignoring their own fickle fans, who wanted to see Brendan Gallagher traded and Youppi! forced to bear Gritty’s love child after a pair of dispiriting losses.
Although the young centremen are getting most of the attention and credit, the much maligned Canadiens defence has also played terrific hockey over nine games against two very tough teams in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Ben Chiarot had some bad luck in Game 3 of this series, while Brett Kulak has been a revelation throughout – and Shea Weber you know.
Hang around long enough and you will still find people screeching about the trade that sent the charismatic P.K. Subban to Nashville for Weber, but that ship sailed long ago. Subban’s career has gone pretty much straight downhill since the trade. His Devils didn’t even make the play-in games, while Subban himself had seven goals and 11 assists and was a minus-21.
All that and Weber is a leader on and off the ice, a mentor, a tower of power for the Canadiens and their pack of small, speedy forwards. As much as Carey Price is the one driving this team forward, he couldn’t do it without Weber in front of him – so maybe it’s time y’all gave Marc Bergevin a little credit.
This game meant redemption for a long list of individuals on the Canadiens side, beginning with emergency head coach Kirk Muller, whose stint in place of Claude Julien came unraveled in a mess of a game Tuesday. Muller’s frantic line changes and the benching of Gallagher smacked of panic. Muller’s bench jockeying steadied considerably Wednesday – and if the point was to give Gallagher some extra motivation, it worked.
Gallagher was a thorn in Gritty’s paw all night long. At his chirpy, grinning best, Gallagher could drive a saint to distraction – and the Flyers are no saints. He was bounced around the ice like a pinball all night long but he can take that physical game and throw it right back at you, as he did when he knocked one out of the air to beat Hart off a pretty feed from Suzuki.
Joel Armia showed why at times he looks like he could be a top six forward in this league, and even Jonathan Drouin came out to play and after Kotkaniemi was made to stand in the corner, young Jake Evans stepped up to show that the Canadiens have more center-ice depth than they have had since Pierre Turgeon, Saku Koivu and Vincent Damphousse were taking faceoffs.
Right now, the 24-year-old Evans – chosen with the 207th pick in the 2014 draft – has moved ahead of first-rounder Ryan Poehling on the depth chart and played so well that you have to wonder if Poehling is in the Canadiens future plans.
But that’s stuff for the future. Right now, the Canadiens have at least won a little respect from their notoriously fickle fans and, you would imagine, from Vigneault and the Flyers. Where other play-in teams like the Blackhawks and the Coyotes have bowed out of this round with barely a whimper, the Habs are still in there slugging.
Now if they can just find a way to bench Chris Lee…