In the midst of a global pandemic — where the unexpected has become the norm — perhaps it’s fitting Canadian hockey fans won’t witness the expected Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews matchup in the NHL North Division Final.
In its place: legendary netminder Carey Price backstops his Montreal Canadiens against 2019-20 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck and the Winnipeg Jets.
“Two of the best in the game,” says Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler. “Carey Price is probably the top goalie of my generation. He’s shown the ability to steal big games, steal big moments, [and] had a big part in their last series, too.
“We think very highly of Helly and the accomplishments he’s had in the couple years in the league. So I think the overriding theme is that we’ve just got to be patient, allow our goalie to do his thing and understand that we’re going in against a team that’s going to do the same thing against their goalie.”
The best-of-seven series opens tonight in Winnipeg between two unlikely combatants — with 500 fully-vaccinated health-care workers expected to attend Game 1 at the MTS Centre.
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The underdog Jets shocked the hockey world in their North Division semifinal by sweeping Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in four games.
Against the odds, the resilient Canadiens roared back from a 3-1 North Division semifinal deficit to eliminate Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday with a 3-1 Game 7 victory at Scotiabank Arena.
“We enjoyed the win for a bit,” Montreal interim head coach Dominique Ducharme said Tuesday of the jubilant post-game flight to Winnipeg. “The players were happy, and everybody was in a good mood.
“As soon as we got up this morning, though, we focused our preparation for the Jets. It’s important to turn the page.”
The Canadiens need to turn the page less than 48 hours after winning after a hard-checking series against Toronto that went the distance.
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The rested Jets, on the other hand, last played on May 24 when they beat the Oilers 4-3 in triple overtime to clinch the series.
“I’m anticipating this to be a patience series,” Wheeler said. “With a series like that, there’s not going to be that game where one team dominates the other. It’s going to be a lot of back and forth, a lot of grinding, and forcing our wills upon each other.”
Hellebuyck, 28, is coming off an outstanding series against Edmonton, allowing just eight goals on 159 shots for a .950 save percentage.
“I know how bad it feels to lose,” Hellebuyck says. “I’m definitely going to give it my all and leave it all out there.”
The Canadiens tend to score by committee led by veteran sniper Tyler Toffoli and 21-year-old centre Nick Suzuki. They attack and defend as an opportunistic five-man unit that likes to score off the rush.
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Captain Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot anchor a formidable Montreal defensive corps that helped contain Toronto’s Matthews and Mitchell Marner.
“Those guys are warriors,” Price, 33, said of his blueline. “They are big and mean and poised with the puck.”
But in the end, Price is usually the difference maker for the Canadiens. The Olympic gold medallist posted an impressive 2.24 goals against average and a .932 save percentage in the seven games against Toronto.
“It’s just so easy playing in front of him, because you know he’s there to bail you out,” said Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher. “It’s a different level of confidence when you have Pricey back there, especially in these elimination games.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
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