TORONTO — Three times the Montreal Canadiens faced elimination. Three times they brushed off the pressure and grew stronger.
After trailing 3-1 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal roared back with three consecutive victories, finally dispatching the Leafs on their home Scotiabank Arena ice with a 3-1 victory on Monday.
Asked about the pressure his team faced heading into Game 7, coach Dominique Ducharme pointed out it was nothing new.
“We played Game 5, Game 6 the same way, we had our backs to the wall,” said Ducharme. “So for us tonight it was just the same mindset, the same way to prepare and I felt our guys were in the right place, and even more confident than before because we just won those last two games.
“So (Monday) was not that different of the day. I thought our guys handled it really well and I think it showed on the ice.”
Brendan Gallagher, Corey Perry and Tyler Toffoli, into an empty net, scored for the Canadiens, while Carey Price made 30 saves.
If there was a turning point to the series comeback, Gallagher thought it came in Game 5 in Toronto, which the Habs won in overtime.
“This was only my second Game 7 ever,” said Gallagher, who scored his first goal since April 1 after missing six weeks with a broken thumb. “I remember the other one (in 2014), we actually lost Game 5 in Boston but I remember sitting around the room afterwards with the guys and we were telling each other we’re winning the series, we felt like we had them.”
Their Game 5 win in Toronto sent the series back to Montreal, where they won in OT again, in front of 2,500 fans, the first crowd at an NHL game in Canada since the start of the pandemic.
“Playing in front of the crowd, I think you can see a little bit of extra jump in us,” Gallagher said. “And you know coming here tonight, it’s almost easier being on the road for these games.
“I think every game we just had to find a way to make one more play than they did.”
The series win was the Habs’ first since they dispatched the Ottawa Senators in six games in 2015 before being eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 in the second round.
They’ll take on the rested Winnipeg Jets, who swept Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers in the Canadian-based North Division’s other first-round series. That series was over in just six days, ending a week ago with a triple-overtime victory.
The Canadiens were headed straight to the airport to fly to Winnipeg on Monday to prepare for Wednesday’s second-round opener. While their comeback victory was a dagger to their Original 6 rival — and the collective hearts of Toronto hockey fans — they had little time to celebrate.
“We won a series, we’re happy about that,” Ducharme said. “But we want more so after tonight you need to turn the page. We’ll take the all the goods that made us have success and bring that to the next one. So, it’s not a time to celebrate for a few days. We enjoy it tonight, and we’ll be preparing tomorrow.”
Canadiens centre Phillip Danault said there was some pride in holding Leafs sniper Auston Matthews to just one goal in the series.
“It’s big for me personally. I think it’s huge for the whole team,” said Danault, who arrived for the post-game interview with a large pizza box, and shovelled in bites between answers. “We know we can play against big players. Everyone did his job. That’s how we won.
“And (Carey) Price was solid every single night, giving us a chance. We’ve got a lot of pride in that dressing room, and we definitely want to get more.”
The series victory was big for Price, who struggled earlier this season.
“I thought we had a pretty good chance all series,” Price said. “Obviously, we win that game (5), we started gathering momentum, and we just kept at it and tried to keep that momentum going.”
Price had kind words for the defencemen in front of him.
“Warriors, those guys. They were poised with the puck and they did an excellent job,” he said.
Game 2 of the second round is Friday in Winnipeg, then the series heads to Montreal for Game 3 on Sunday.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press