The Montreal Canadiens, whose regular season was the definition of mediocrity, are playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs only because of the the NHL’s expanded field.
But they don’t look out of their element.
The eighth-seeded Habs finally solved Carter Hart and kept their season alive Wednesday night with a wild 5-3 win over the top-seeded Flyers in Toronto.
The Flyers have a three-games-to-two lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal, which resumes Friday at 7 p.m.
Joel Armia scored a pair of goals and Nick Suzuki snapped a 3-3 tie with 9 minutes, 1 second left to pace Montreal, which stunned Pittsburgh in the play-in series and is trying to do the same to the Flyers.
Jake Voracek (three points) scored twice in a losing cause, the first multi-goal playoff game of his career.
The Flyers’ defense, so dominating in their three wins in the series, allowed a slew of Grade A chances against the desperate Canadiens.
“Their season’s on the line, so you know they’re going to bring their best,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who was minus-3 in the loss. “We were just a half step slow killing plays, so they were able to connect on a few passes and get some looks in the slot and convert on a couple.”
Phillip Danault’s empty-net goal secured the win for the hungry Habs, who outhit the Flyers, 39-28, and had a 23-9 advantage in blocked shots. The Canadiens won despite losing one of their top forwards, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, to a game misconduct early in the second period.
It was the second time in his young career that Hart had played on back-to-back nights. Coach Alain Vigneault said it was an easy decision to go with the 22-year-old goalie, who was coming off consecutive shutouts.
“He’s been playing extremely well,” said Vigneault, whose team wasted three goals from its revived power play. “Tonight, there might be one or two he might want to have back, but at the end of the day, we have a lot of faith in him. He’ll be fine next game.”
With 9:23 left in regulation, Joel Farabee’s power-play goal tied it at 3-3. Just 22 seconds later, after Nate Thompson’s turnover behind the net, an all-alone Suzuki took a feed from Jonathan Drouin, made a deft move, and scored from in front to give the Canadiens 4-3 lead.
The Flyers took advantage of a five-minute major penalty on Kotkaniemi and scored a pair of power-play goals – both by Voracek – to take a 2-1 second-period lead.
The power play had been 1-for-30 in the postseason before Voracek scored his third and fourth goals of this series.
Kotkaniemi boarded Travis Sanheim, who was cut near his right eye and needed medical treatment, and he received a major penalty and game misconduct with 18:15 left in the second period. Sanheim returned to the ice a short time later.
Voracek tied the score at 1-1 when his one-timer from the top of the right circle appeared to deflect off defenseman Ben Chiarot and past goalie Carey Price, ending the Flyers’ 0-for-18 power-play funk.
About four minutes later, Voracek again put a shot off Chiarot and past Price, giving the Flyers a short-lived 2-1 lead. Claude Giroux had assists on both goals, tying him for fifth in that department (45 helpers) in franchise playoff history.
With 9:48 left in the second, Montreal tied it at 2-2 when Armia (plus-4) scored his second of the night. From a tough angle on the right, Armia put a shot off Hart’s left shoulder and into the net on the short side. It was a goal Hart would want back.
“Obviously, I’ve got to make a couple more saves,” Hart said. “That’s hockey at the end of the day. Just have to put it behind us and get ready for the next game.”
Voracek said the Canadiens’ ability to strike quickly after a Flyers goal was key.
“Every time we gained momentum from scoring a goal, we got scored on right way,” he said. “During the regular season, we usually carried the momentum into the next shift and kind of put the foot on the metal. Today, they absolutely killed us with that. Kudos to them.”
Before the wide-open second period ended, Brendan Gallagher ended his scoring drought on his 37th shot of the postseason to put the Habs ahead, 3-2. With the Canadiens on a power play, Gallagher knocked Suzuki’s pass out of midair and beat Hart with 8:30 to go in the second.
“That’s the Gally we love,” Montreal interim coach Kirk Muller said. “He brought guys into the fight.”
Suzuki, from the top of the right circle, fired a shot that deflected off Ivan Provorov and past Hart to give the Habs an apparent 4-2 lead with 5:26 remaining in the second. But the Flyers challenged for offside, and the goal was erased when the video review showed Drouin was indeed offside.
Montreal, blanked in its two previous games, ended its scoreless streak just 2:53 after the opening faceoff as it got a shorthanded goal from Armia.
Defenseman Xavier Ouellet fired a center-ice shot off the end boards, and Armia beat Sanheim to the carom and whipped a slot shot past Hart. That ended Hart’s scoreless streak at 122:52, seventh-longest in the franchise’s playoff history.
The team that has scored first has won each of the five games in the series.
“We have to get ready for a Game 6,” Voracek said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We just have to keep working hard and got to earn those two match points.”