Feisty Habs not ready to bid adieu, Canucks put Blues on brink

The first round of these Stanley Cup Playoffs have been fascinating to follow. Even for heavy favorites such as the Golden Knights, Lightning ang Bruins, who all advanced in five games, they were tested.

Only the high powered Avalanche weren’t as they dismantled the Coyotes the final two games thanks to an onslaught from Nathan MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri, Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen. After losing Game Three 4-2 thanks to Darcy Kuemper, they destroyed Arizona by taking the last two games by identical 7-1 scores.

Scary stuff. Colorado could very well be awaiting the winner between the Blues and Canucks. In the best series of this round, the road team has won every single game. Even if neither is technically home due to the bubble in Edmonton, they each get the last change when classified as the home team. It hasn’t mattered.

In a compelling series that has featured consecutive overtime games which a star center won for each side, the hockey has been excellent. Perhaps the biggest surprise was St. Louis coach Craig Berube gambling by going to Jake Allen over Jordan Binnington for Games 3-5. Following Bo Horvat’s overtime winner in Game Two, it was Allen who made the key saves in Game Three. Brayden Schenn won it in sudden death on a breakaway going top shelf on Jacob Markstrom.

The Blues followed up that big win by taking Game Four in regulation. Ryan O’Reilly dominated with two goals and an assist in the 3-1 win to even the series. Alex Pietrangelo had a power play goal and helper while pest David Perron notched two assists. Allen made 22 saves.

In another entertaining fifth game, it was Allen against Markstrom. This one saw more goals scored. The Canucks used a three goal barrage during the second period to overcome a 3-1 deficit and pull out a hard fought 4-3 win over the Blues last night.

JT Miller continued his playoff renaissance by tallying his fifth of the postseason to get the comeback started with over eight minutes left. With Vancouver coach Travis Green tweaking his lines due to an ineffective Brock Boeser, Jake Virtanen benefited when his sharp angle shot surprised an unsuspecting Allen, who was caught napping. His goal tied the game with 3:52 remaining after some nifty skating from Elias Pettersson with Miller setting up the goal.

That bad goal allowed the Canucks to gain momentum. With under two minutes left in the period, Tyler Motte took advantage of a St. Louis defensive mistake to cruise into the slot and blow his second of the game by Allen for the game-winner. He started the scoring with a shorthanded goal. A player you don’t expect to come through did in a big way to give the Canucks a 3-2 series lead.

The Blues went from up two goals including another from clutch performer Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn and Zach Sanford to a disappointing result. They didn’t push until there were five minutes left in the third. By that point, Jacob Markstrom wouldn’t allow it. He made a few huge saves and had a close call at the buzzer.

The Blues thought they’d forced overtime with David Perron indicating a loose puck went in before time expired. However, conclusive replays showed the refs got it right. The puck bounced off a Canucks skate and the time showed zero before it potentially crossed the goal line. I say that because Markstrom might’ve saved it anyway. It was on the line, but hard to tell if it fully crossed. It didn’t matter. The game was over.

What a crazy ending to a great game. This series has been the best of the First round. I felt it would go seven and it just might. I took the Blues due to their experience and heavy forecheck. They’ll have to keep the trend going as a road team to force Game Seven. Look for Binnington to return to net for that crucial elimination game.

In the East, two series remain. While the Bruins used a last second Patrice Bergeron power play goal in the second to eliminate the Hurricanes for a second consecutive year, the Lightning rallied from a two-goal deficit with under 10 minutes left in regulation to beat the Blue Jackets 5-4 in overtime. Goals from Kevin Shattenkirk and Anthony Cirelli forced sudden death. On both key plays, Brayden Point set them up along with Nikita Kucherov.

The definition of a clutch performer, Point has been the Bolts’ best player. Without captain Steven Stamkos, he’s assumed the role of number one center while continuing to produce in key moments. Having already scored in that quintuple overtime marathon to set the tone in Game One, it was his pass in traffic that banked in off the skate of Cirelli to force OT with 1:38 left in regulation.

Columbus paid the price for opting to sit back and protect a two-goal lead. They also got caught with the second defense pair out on those two goals against with an unfavorable match-up. Tampa coach Jon Cooper took advantage of the last change to outsmart John Tortorella. In sudden death, a turnover behind the Columbus net lead directly to Kucherov feeding a wide open Point in front for the series clincher. A perfect deke and backhand past Joonas Korpisalo coming at 5:12 of overtime.

The play was made possible due to a hard reverse pass from David Savard that partner Vladislav Gavrikov couldn’t handle. They were victimized quite a bit in this series. Gavrikov is a young player who should improve while Savard is a veteran who is what he is.

Tampa deserves a lot of credit for showing plenty of character to rally back and finish off Columbus. They didn’t want to play a Game Six. But Tortorella gets blame for sitting back. He didn’t want to take to reporters following the loss. Sometimes, he can be so stubborn. Just childish not to give the media anything. You lost.

In another potential elimination game, the Canadiens weren’t ready to go home just yet. They showed a lot of heart to win a wild Game Five 5-3 over the Flyers in Toronto. This one is still being discussed due to two incidents. The first one saw Jesperi Kotkaniemi hit Travis Sanheim from behind and be assessed a five minute boarding major and game misconduct. At first live, it looked like the right call. However, replays showed that the hit wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It didn’t merit five minutes. It should’ve been four.

Instead, with the Flyers trailing 1-0 on a shorthanded goal from Joel Armia in a strong first period by the Habs, they took full advantage of the gift by scoring twice on the major. Jake Voracek scored both. First, he had a one-timer deflect off Ben Chiarot at 2:35 off a good feed from Claude Giroux. Then, after Nick Suzuki failed to clear the zone, Voracek threw a puck that went off Chiarot and past Carey Price at 6:37.

Those two goals incensed Habs fans. Many criticized the call with ref Chris Lee coming under fire. I don’t know why he’s given these games. He’s always been inconsistent. You could insert other colorful names here. I won’t.

To their credit, Montreal responded. In what had been a low scoring series with goals tough to come by due to goalies Carey Price and Carter Hart, this was the antithesis. After Price had given up two straight, Hart let in a soft one from Armia, whose shot from a bad angle snuck in with Suzuki in front to tie the score. It was Armia’s second of the game. He plays hard and was everywhere.

Just 1:18 later, a brilliant play between Suzuki and Gallagher turned into a great goal. Suzuki made an elevated pass down low for a wide open Gallagher, who batted it out of midair to beat Hart on the power play. Philippe Myers was off for a hi-sticking double minor. Despite everything, Montreal took a 3-2 lead to the locker room after two.

The third was even more intense. The Flyers came out hard. They applied heavy pressure on the Canadiens, who looked a bit sluggish. That resulted in penalty trouble and more work for Price. His best save came on Kevin Hayes when he got the glove up on a breakaway to deny him. Hayes would get another chance at it when he got behind the Habs defense. Jeff Petry was able to trip him up from behind without it being a penalty shot. It was close.

The Flyers did all their damage on the power play. It only took them 14 seconds to tie it back up. This time, Sean Couturier and Voracek worked a perfect timing play to a open Joel Farabee in the slot. He was able to redirect the Voracek pass over Price for his third of the postseason with 9:23 left. A well executed play.

But before the Flyers could settle in, Suzuki absolutely killed them. On a quick feed from Jonathan Drouin, Suzuki faked and then tucked in a forehand into an open net for a 4-3 lead 22 seconds later. It was a remarkable play for a very talented rookie, who has star written all over him. He was the key part of the trade that sent former captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas that also brought back Tomas Tatar. Suzuki is the kind of center the Canadiens haven’t had since Saku Koivu. He’s probably got a higher ceiling. That’s saying something.

This game had it all. It had a potential Suzuki goal earlier in the second that went through Hart that would’ve ended his night if not for a successful challenge by Alain Vigneault for offside. Had that counted, it would’ve been 4-2 with Hart replaced by vet Brian Elliott. Instead, he got a reprieve and stayed in the game which Farabee later tied.

It also had controversy. Matt Niskanen somehow got away with a dangerous crosscheck on Gallagher. It was right to the noggin. Montreal was up in arms over the missed call which could’ve been a major. The NHL is reviewing the play in question. Vigneault called it a “hockey play” that was unfortunate due to Gallagher being smaller. That hasn’t sat well with furious Habs fans.

The ironic part is Gallagher was chirping the Flyers bench at the end. Especially Voracek. Of course, once Phillip Danault sealed it with an empty net goal, all hell broke loose. The Flyers acted like babies once it was 5-3 with 18 seconds left. Sean Couturier cross-checked Artturi Lehkonen. Shea Weber didn’t take kindly and got into it with Voracek. Each were given a misconduct.

It was the usual comedy you get with the Flyers when they lose. At the buzzer, the well traveled Nate Thompson searched for a dance partner, but no one obliged. The refs finally did their job and the two teams separated.

The teams combined for 67 penalty minutes. It sets up a huge Game Six tomorrow. That is one I’m looking forward to. Will the Flyers have Niskanen available? We shall see.

Tonight, there are a pair of games. The Islanders look to eliminate the Capitals for a second straight game. Washington rallied from two down to win Game Four 3-2. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored with the Caps captain getting two including the winner. The former champs finally showed up. It says here the Isles need to get this done later.

The Stars can finish off Calgary in the late game. They’ve taken the last two and are getting key contributions from John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen. The Flames have missed Matthew Tkachuk. Anton Khudobin outdueled Cam Talbot the other day. It’ll be interesting to see if the Flames have anything left.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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