The uphill climb facing the Montreal Canadiens just got a little steeper.
The only Canadian team with a shot at the Stanley Cup gave up a 4-1 loss Monday in their first of a best-of-seven semifinal battle against the top-seeded Vegas Golden Knights.
It was Montreal’s first game outside of Canada in 2021, and it came before a boisterous crowd of 17,884 — a far cry from what COVID-19 restrictions have allowed north of the border all season.
Montreal’s Cole Caufield buried the lone tally for the Habs on a power play in the second frame.
Carey Price stopped 26-of-30 shots for the Canadiens and Marc-Andre Fleury turned in a 28 save performance for the Golden Knights.
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The Knights controlled Monday’s game almost from the opening faceoff, notching their first with a fearsome Theodore one-timer from the point that beat a sliding Carey Price on the stick side.
They made it 2-0 early in the second when Theodore faked a shot and shovelled it over to Martinez, whose faceoff-circle blast on a near-empty net left Price diving across the crease in vain.
Montreal spoiled Fleury’s shutout hopes with the man advantage at the 12:05 mark when Caufield buried a juicy rebound off a Tyler Toffoli shot for his first goal of the playoffs.
But the momentum was short-lived: less than a minute later, Janmark made it 3-1 from the edge of the crease by tipping a drifting shot from Alex Tuch past Price’s outstretched pad.
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Knights defender Holden made it 4-1 midway through the third before Price headed for the bench, a four-minute stretch of six-on-five hockey that gave Fleury a chance to show off for the fans.
The series promises to be a chippy one — nearly every scoring rush ended in a scrum behind or beside the net, frequently with frustrated Habs forward Brendan Gallagher at the centre of it.
Even so, the first frame produced only one power play per side — Montreal failed to capitalize on an early high-sticking call against Vegas centre Jonathan Marchesseault, then fought off the man advantage after Phillip Daneault hauled down Alex Pietrangelo deep in Montreal territory.
.<a href=”https://twitter.com/colecaufield?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@colecaufield</a> gets the <a href=”https://twitter.com/CanadiensMTL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@CanadiensMTL</a> on the board! <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/StanleyCup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#StanleyCup</a> <a href=”https://t.co/su9bV8uzgc”>pic.twitter.com/su9bV8uzgc</a>
The penalty situation changed quickly in the second.
Montreal was 1-for-3 with the man advantage and Vegas went 0-for-4.
The top-ranked Golden Knights won an NHL-best 40 games in the shortened 56-game regular season and tied Colorado for the highest point total in the league — 23 points more than Montreal in the standings.
But the Canadiens have been the underdogs twice already this post-season.
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They were not expected to beat the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round, nor were they favoured to overcome the third-place Winnipeg Jets in the second round. The team silenced critics in both cases and came into Vegas riding a seven-game win streak that included a sweep of the Jets.
It’s not all familiar territory for the Habs, though.
The Montreal-Vegas series is the first cross-border matchup in the NHL this season, made possible by a federal exemption allowing teams to bypass 14-day quarantine requirements.
Monday’s capacity crowd was a stark contrast from the empty Canadian arenas during the regular season and even the 2,500 fans permitted inside Montreal’s Bell Centre during the playoffs.