Thursday's NHL playoffs: Canadiens return to Cup Final after 3-2 OT win over Vegas

Associated Press

Montreal — Artturi Lehkonen scored 1:39 into overtime, Carey Price stopped 37 shots and the Montreal Canadiens advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 28 years following a 3-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.

Cole Caufield and captain Shea Weber also scored, and the Canadiens eliminated the Golden Knights in Game 6 of their semifinal series. Considered mere afterthoughts after entering the playoffs with the worst record, Montreal has won 11 of 13 since falling behind 3-1 to Toronto in its first-round series.

Montreal Canadiens' Cole Caufield (22) celebrates his goal past Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner as teammates Nicolas Hague (14) and Brayden McNabb (3) look on during the second period in Game 6 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Thursday, June 24, 2021 in Montreal.

Montreal will make its NHL-leading 35th Stanley Cup Final appearance with a shot to add to its 24 championships. The Canadiens will face the winner of the semifinal series between the defending champion Lightning and New York Islanders. Game 7 is at Tampa Bay on Friday.

“We wouldn't be here right now if we didn't believe," Price said. "We’ve believed this whole time and obviously we’re ecstatic and we have a lot of work left to do.”

The Golden Knights, making their third semifinal appearance in four seasons of existence, fell short of returning to the championship round for the first time since their inaugural campaign in 2018, when they lost to Washington in five games. They were undone by a sputtering offense which managed just nine goals against Montreal following a 4-1 series-opening win, and an anemic power play that went 0-of-17 against the Canadiens.

The game was decided off a faceoff in the Montreal end, and after Price held his ground to stop former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty set up in the left circle. Montreal's Phil Danault gained the Vegas zone, drew two defenders in the middle and slipped a no-look pass to his left to Lehkonen, who lifted a shot beating Robin Lehner high on the short side.

“Just trying to go high and hit the net,” Lehkonen said. “We’re trying to keep it going one game at a time and not think things too much far ahead. I feel like we showed up today and it’s a big win for us and we have four more to go.”

Lehner stopped 29 shots.

“It (stinks) we couldn’t get over the hump,” Lehner said. "We’re a hard-working group. ... I’m proud of everyone in there. We’re right there knocking on the door.”

The Golden Knights twice erased one-goal deficits. Reilly Smith scored 48 seconds after Weber opened the scoring. Alec Martinez tied it again 68 seconds into the third period by converting a rebound after Price was unable to glove Alex Pietrangelo’s shot from the top of the right circle.

Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer turned to Lehner for a second straight time in Montreal, and with the team traveling cross-country for the second time in three days.

Lehner provided Vegas a much-needed lift in stopping 27 shots in a 2-1 overtime win in Game 4 to even the series at 2. Fleury gave up three goals on 25 shots on Tuesday in making his 16th start this postseason.

It marked an unlikely end for a Golden Knights team that finished the regular season with a 40-14-2, record and matched the President’s Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche with 82 points. Vegas overcame adversity in its first two playoff rounds. The Golden Knights squandered an opening-round 3-1 series lead to Minnesota, before winning Game 7. Vegas then fell behind 2-0 in the second round to Colorado before winning the next four games.

In Montreal, it suddenly it feels like 1993 all over again, when a veteran-laden, defense-first team with a star goalie in Patrick Roy made a surprise run and beat the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings in five games to win Montreal’s 24th Stanley Cup.

Canadiens assistant coach Luke Richardson, who was playing for Edmonton at the time, sees various similarities.

“There’s always differences as well,” he said earlier in the day. “But I remember playing against that team, and it was just a tough, stingy team to play against. And that’s what we want to be every night.

Though considered underdogs throughout the playoffs, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin this week said his offseason vision in building the team with a strong defense was better suited for the playoffs than the regular season. Montreal was affected by injuries and a late-season coronavirus outbreak in closing the year 0-3-2 for a 24-21-11 finish.

The Canadiens then opened the playoffs rallying from a 3-1 first-round series deficit against Toronto, before sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in the second round. The Canadiens once again faced adversity in opening the semifinals with a 4-1 loss at Vegas before regaining their defensive-smothering and quick-strike transition offensive identity to win four of the next five.

They’ve played with an unflinching focus, and overcome missing interim coach Dominique Ducharme, who has spent the past four games in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 last week.

Montreal becomes just the sixth Canadian-based team to reach the final since 1994, and first since the Vancouver Canucks lost to Boston in seven games in 2011.

The Canadiens also clinched their berth on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, the Quebec nation’s cultural holiday, and equivalent to the Fourth of July in the U.S.

The area around the Bell Centre was buzzing more than two hours before faceoff, with security officials barring fans from the arena side of St. Antoine Street where players enter. A large crowd of fans were instead limited to watching behind a permanent barrier on the other side of the street. With only 3,500 fans allowed to attend due to COVID restrictions, there were far more people packing the plaza outside the arena.

On the advice of Montreal police, the Canadiens had the fans stay inside the building well after Lehkonen scored.

More Thursday's NHL

Hakstoll hired as first Kraken coach

Seattle — Through all the speculation, rumors, leaks and educated guesses that came with the search for the Seattle Kraken’s first coach, the name Dave Hakstol never surfaced.

More prominent names with lofty resumes or connections certainly emerged, some widely seen as likely to land the gig. Hakstol’s name didn’t come up until he was announced as the Kraken’s leader Thursday.

“On our end we just had the conversations, we talked about things and I think a lot of that credit goes to Dave,” general manager Ron Francis said. “He just didn’t talk about it to anybody and when you don’t do that it doesn’t get out there.”

Hakstol is now charged with leading the expansion franchise through its first season this fall.

The Seattle Kraken hired Dave Hakstol as head coach of the expansion franchise that will begin its first NHL season in the fall.

His hiring was a surprise move by Francis, completing a process that started with an initial interview in the summer of 2020. Francis said there were eight candidates who had formal interviews but Hakstol’s name never seemed to be mentioned as a candidate.

“I view it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of something that we have an opportunity to build from the ground up,” Hakstol said. “Communication is going to be very, very important, not only over the next few weeks of building the roster but from there its planning on how everything fits together.”

Seattle will be Hakstol’s second head coaching job in the NHL. He coached the Philadelphia Flyers for three-plus seasons from 2015-19 and spent the past two years as a Toronto Maple Leafs assistant.

The 52-year-old Hakstol coached the Flyers to two playoff appearances but both ended with first-round losses and he was fired midway through his fourth season. He also coached at the University of North Dakota for 11 years and was an off-the-board hire six years ago for then-Philadelphia general manager Ron Hextall, just as he is for Francis this time.

Francis is banking on the belief Hakstol learned from his missteps in Philadelphia and, like many NHL coaches, will be more successful given a second chance.

“I wouldn’t have the career I did unless I got that one call for my second job, and that was Lou Lamoriello. I didn’t have four or five calls, I had one. It was from Lou and we went to a Stanley Cup Final,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said prior to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup semifinals Thursday. “I wouldn’t have the NHL path that I’ve been on without that one call. I was significantly better. I was appreciative of the second opportunity. I think I did my part to help that franchise be successful from then on.”

The expectations for the Kraken are high.

Hakstol’s task will be to try to equal the success of the league’s last expansion franchise, however unrealistic it might be for the Kraken to match the Golden Knights. Vegas reached the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season and has made the playoffs in all four years in existence.

“It’s really about building with good quality people to begin with, building it the right way,” Hakstol said. “Making sure that we’re building not only a team that can come out of the gate and play with a lot of pride, passion and have success, but also work towards building the depth of the organization for not only that early success, but to have that sustainable success.”

The hiring fit Francis’ original timeline, which had Seattle’s coaching search settled before the end of June, well before the July 21 expansion draft and July 23 NHL draft, where the Kraken will have the No. 2 overall selection.

Hakstol got the job over former Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet and others who interviewed multiple times. Francis, Hakstol and Seattle assistant GM Jason Botterill were together with Canada’s team at the 2019 world championship.

“We got to spend four weeks together over in Austria and Slovakia, and I got to know him as a person and kind of watch his work ethic and how he operated and sort of building that respect for what he can do,” Francis said.

While Hakstol ended up with the job, he may not have been the initial favorite.

Gerard Gallant seemed the obvious option for Seattle due to his experience leading Vegas through its record-setting first season, which ended with a loss to Washington in the final. Gallant opted for a chance with the New York Rangers over potentially taking on the challenges of another first-year franchise.

The Kraken are expected to begin training camp in September with the season likely to begin in mid-October. They will play in the Pacific Division, with the Coyotes shifting to the Central.