There was Carey Price putting on a goaltending clinic. Marc-André Fleury making a mental error. Josh Anderson scoring twice, including the overtime winner. And more fans in the stands than Canada had seen in 15 months.
But in some ways, the game — Montreal beat Vegas 3-2 in overtime in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup semifinal on Friday night — felt like a backdrop to the reminder that COVID can rear its head at any moment and disrupt the best-laid plans.
The Stanley Cup semifinals were rocked by a positive COVID test for Montreal head coach Dominique Ducharme, sent home to quarantine while assistant Luke Richardson held down the duties behind the bench.
Richardson, an ex-Leaf, coached four years in the AHL and coached Canada to Spengler Cup gold. In the end, coaching may not have made much of a difference with Vegas dominating the Canadiens in almost every category — except on the scoreboard.
Anderson scored the winner at 12:53 of the extra period and the Canadiens took a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven Stanley Cup semifinal.
- The crowd goes wild: The Bell Centre hosted 3,500 fans, the largest crowd to see a game in Canada since the pandemic struck — 1,000 more than for games against Toronto and Winnipeg.
And they might not have believed their eyes when Fleury bobbled the puck behind his net and handed it to Josh Anderson, who had nothing but net in front of him for the goal to force overtime at 18:05 of the third. Cole Caufield also scored for Montreal.
Alex Pietrangelo scored early in the third period after Nicolas Roy had opened the scoring in the second for Vegas, who had another rough night on the power play (0-for-4 through regulation).
If not for Price, Montreal would not have had a chance. Vegas fired 17 shots in the first, a period that ended goal-less, and 13 in the second. Montreal had three shots in the first, five in the second and only started playing more in the Vegas end after Pietrangelo’s goal 2:22 in. They ended up with 13 shots in the third, including Anderson’s goal.
- Shooting blanks: The Golden Knights had talked about getting off to better starts — that had been the sole domain of the Canadiens in the first two games. Vegas finally did, firing 17 shots at Price in the first period alone, and dominating play so much in Montreal’s end that it took the Canadiens until the 11:27 mark to get their first shot on Marc-André Fleury. Montreal managed just three in first period.
The opening frame ended up scoreless, not just because Price was so good —he was — but also because Vegas’s shots weren’t that dangerous. The big Montreal defenders cleared space in front of Price, cleared rebounds and simply wouldn’t let Vegas shooters have good looks.
The Knights weren’t rewarded until their 21st shot, early in the second. Eric Staal gave the puck away to Roy, who was alone beside Price and able to pick the corner.
It felt like justice for the Knights, followed by a letdown. The Canadiens scored just 38 seconds later, Nick Suzuki springing Caufield on a breakaway on Montreal’s fifth shot. The shots were 30-8 for Vegas after two periods, but the score was tied 1-1.
- COVID effect: Ducharme’s positive test had a domino effect. It meant Richardson took over the head-coaching duties, while goalie coach Sean Burke moved onto the bench to take over Richardson’s spot handling the defence. The Canadiens went through something similar last year, when Kirk Muller had to take over from Claude Julien, who had heart issues in the playoffs.
Ducharme had been double-vaccinated, but the last jab was June 9, not enough time to feel the full effects. The positive test was a stark reminder that the virus remains a risk. While all players passed their COVID tests prior to the game, there will be worry for a few days at least.
Earlier in the season, Flames winger Josh Leivo travelled by plane with teammates and tested positive the next day. He missed seven games, but no other player tested positive. That precedent was one of the reasons why Friday’s game was allowed to be played.
- What happened in Vegas: Games 1 and 2 in Vegas were played before full houses, and both coaches were spotted flouting NHL rules to keep their faces covered on the bench — moving their mask to speak, nostrils sometimes exposed.
Ducharme had been tested Thursday morning, before the team left Las Vegas. He flew home and basically awoke Friday to the news that there might be a testing “anomaly.” He stayed away from the morning skate, got tested again and that second test confirmed COVID.
Ducharme was said to be OK and watching at home, the suggestion being he is asymptomatic. He set up the game plan and was expected to be in touch with the team and fellow coaches via video conferencing.
Still, it would be a black eye for the league and the Canadian government that allowed an exemption for the Canadiens and Golden Knights to cross the border if those games are later deemed to have been super-spreader events, and Ducharme’s exposure leads to a cluster in Montreal.
“The Canadiens organization has and will continue to follow all guidelines aimed at protecting the health and safety of its players, staff and community at large as set by the NHL, the Canadian federal government, the Quebec provincial government, and national and provincial health agencies,” the league said in a release.
Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin expressed hope that Ducharme would be back soon.
“As for how long he’ll be out, we’re talking to Health Quebec and the NHL, it’s an ongoing situation, so I can’t tell you how long,” said Bergevin.
- In the house: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took in the game. He is covered by the exemption allowing cross-border travel … The Canadiens’ only changes were behind the bench … The Knights put pepper-pot third-liner Alex Tuch on the first line at centre with Chandler Stephenson still out. Tomas Nosek also got his first action since an injury in the first round, replacing Patrick Brown.
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