The most storied rivalry in professional sports was rekindled tonight, when in the first game of the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinals the twenty-four time Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadians took on their arch nemesis and bitterest of opponents the … oh, who am I kidding. It was the Vegas Golden Knights.
While some might scoff at the notion of this tilt between one of the NHL’s Original Six franchises, especially the rouge blanc et bleu i.e. les Canadiens de Montréal and one of the NHL’s Original Thirty-One franchises, namely the grid rouge et or a/k/a les Chevaliers D’or de Vegas, there is actually much in common between the two franchises, the cities they represent, and their fan bases. While it is common knowledge that in Quebec province, as is the case throughout Canada, the coming of winter is most welcome as it means outdoor skating rinks both man-made and natural will soon be sheets of ice welcoming skaters young and old to hone their hockey skills. Likewise, in Las Vegas winter, the season being defined by the temperature dropping anywhere below eighty degrees, is eagerly anticipated by scores of hockey players itching to lace ‘em up just as soon as the craps tables freeze over.
In not dissimilar fashion, the two teams’ fan bases are so difficult to tell apart it is almost eerie. The Montreal fans can trace their heritage back through decades of Canadians loyalty passed down from generation to generation. (As a side note, as of yet there is no one agreed-upon explanation why a team based in Quebec, which every few decades tries to secede from Canada and become a slightly glorified French province, is called the Canadians when its residents would rather be identified as anything other than. But I digress.) Meanwhile, their Vegas compatriots can also trace their hockey fandom down through the generations, as it takes the combined wages of one or more generations to afford tickets at T-Mobile Arena. And to answer those scoffers who believe Vegas fans lack knowledge about the game, not a single Golden Knights fan does not know the proper definition of, for example, icing, and can readily explain to the uninitiated the reasons why they hold a preference for either Duncan Hines or Pillsbury.
But enough dismissing of scurrilous rumors regarding Vegas; on to the game. It started out as expected, heavy on smash and light on dash as both teams played to their strength, namely bodying up the opponent and grinding it out against the boards while working toward grinding the other player down. Although Montreal had a bit of the better in overall play, Vegas scored first when a Shae Theodore shot slipped by a screened Canadians goalie Carey Price at 10:45 of the first period, this becoming the first time the Canadians had been behind in this year’s playoffs since Game Four of their first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Golden Knights veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was on his game, making several excellent saves. The after-whistle action became gradually chippier as the period wound down, with plenty of hugging but absolutely no loving. Both teams could take positives from the first period, the Golden Knights enjoying the scoreboard aspect more with their 1-0 lead.
The second period started in sluggish fashion, with Montreal killing a couple of penalties. Things livened up considerably when a slick pass by Theodore led to a sharp one-timer by Alec Martinez. 2-0 Vegas with 17:42 left in the period. Vegas had the upper hand in play, especially on the defensive end where the Golden Knights held the Canadians without a shot on goal for over eight minutes. Montreal weathered the storm, mostly due to stellar play by Price, and struck back with a power play goal by Cole Caufield with 7:55 left, cutting the Vegas lead in half. Vegas went back up by two with 7:02 when a faceoff win in the offensive zone was transformed into an easy deflection into the net by Mattias Janmark. 3-1 Golden Knights after two.
The primary question going into the third period was: Could Montreal find a way to break through Vegas’ smothering defense? The answer was no. The Golden Knights maintained their constant pressure at both ends of the rink. Nick Holden scored for Vegas with 9:54 left, and the game was essentially over. Montreal pulled Price with less than five minutes left in the game in hopes of a couple of quick scores. Said hopes were dashed, with Vegas holding on for a 4-1 win and a one game to none lead in the best-of-seven series.
Vegas will, in all likelihood, never approach Montreal’s count of Stanley Cups won, but it would be no surprise if they shortened that difference by one this year. And who knows? Maybe Lord Stanley’s cup would enjoy a Wayne Newton show.