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Canadiens’ strength at centre has them on verge of first Cup Final since ’93

This party started in the bubble 11 months ago with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki putting in a playoff performance Marc Bergevin said would make them pieces he could build the Montreal Canadiens around for 10 to 15 years.

This party is now getting out of hand thanks to those two kids and a couple of veteran centres who have filled a decades-long gap the Canadiens have had at the position.

The greatest evidence of it came in Game 5 of this Stanley Cup semifinal with Kotkaniemi opening the scoring, and Suzuki closing it out to secure a 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights and send the Canadiens back to the Bell Centre within one win of their first Final since 1993. It was Kotkaniemi’s ninth goal in his 25th playoff game and Suzuki finished with points 18, 19 and 20 in his 26th.

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They are 20 and 21 years old, respectively, but they are wise beyond their years.

“I think last year everyone made comments of, ‘Are we too inexperienced in the middle?’ and I think they proved them wrong then,” said Canadiens stand-in coach Luke Richardson, “and now they’re a year older with that experience from last year’s bubble playing in the playoffs to this year — I think it’s really showing.

“I know they’re young, but they had that first-time experience winning a short series and then (they were) really competitive against a good, strong Philadelphia team. So, this year I think it’s translated. They’re a year older, they’re competitive guys, they’re used to winning coming from their junior teams, so they have that fire. And they’re showing some real good maturity.”

But this isn’t a two-man show. This is just as much about what Phillip Danault is doing in these playoffs, and just as much about 36-year-old Eric Staal turning back the clock to when he was an elite centreman raising the Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes.

On Tuesday, Danault was on the ice for just his second goal against at 5-on-5 since Game 4 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has matched up against Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, against the Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Schiefele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyler Connor and Blake Wheeler, and he has dismantled Golden Knights centres Chandler Stephenson, William Karlsson, Nicolas Roy and Alex Tuch. He’s also a key piece on the Canadiens’ penalty kill, which in successfully eliminating two Vegas opportunities in Game 5 has now gone 28 consecutive times without surrendering a goal.

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This game was iced with Staal jumping off the bench, wriggling his way to the high slot and burying a perfect pass from Suzuki to make it 2-0 6:32 into the second period. And if you want a sense for how this centre line has helped vault these Canadiens back to prominence, look no further than what Staal said about that play when he was asked about how Suzuki set it up.

“Not only was Nick’s pass phenomenal and a great look to me, but Phil earlier in the shift took a big hit to make a play to get it out of our end and then changed, and I was the beneficiary of being in the right spot,” he said of his eighth point of these playoffs. “All those little plays add up, they’re huge, and you love to see that kind of stuff as a group because it keeps building our guys closer together.”

Three centres producing the biggest goal the Canadiens have scored in these playoffs…

If you’re a lifelong fan who’s old enough to remember when Vincent Damphousse, Guy Carbonneau and Kirk Muller helped the team win its 24th Cup, the lack of depth at centre is at the heart of why it’s taken so long for the team to get back here. Look at what the Canadiens have there now.

Don’t forget that Jake Evans, who was among Montreal’s most effective forwards before Scheifele charged and concussed him in Game 1 of the second round, is working his way back to health. The former seventh-round pick, who spent four years at Notre Dame and then went to Joel Bouchard’s AHL school for centres, is well on his way to becoming an excellent two-way pivot.

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Ryan Poehling, who’s in his sophomore season at Bouchard University, isn’t far behind.

That he’s down the pecking order, though, has everything to do with Suzuki and Kotkaniemi progressing as fast as they have.

The Finn, drafted third overall in 2018 before debuting as the youngest player in the NHL, is proving he’s as resilient as he is skilled. He had an impressive first year, with 11 goals and 34 points in a sheltered role, and lost his confidence in Year 2 before regaining it in Laval and showing up as a much better player in the Toronto bubble.

Kotkaniemi didn’t let the ups and downs of this season get to him, either.

He may have only had five goals and 20 points in 56 games, been scratched to start the playoffs and in a tough position on the winning goal by Roy in Game 4 to send this series back to Vegas tied 2-2, but he started and finished the play that got the Canadiens a 1-0 lead in Game 5. It was his fifth goal of these playoffs.

“He’s been playing great hockey,” said Suzuki, with Kotkaniemi sitting right beside him. “He was a little disappointed he didn’t get to start the playoffs against the Leafs, but the way he’s handled that has been great. Playing a big role for us, so it’s nice that he gets rewarded with that goal for us. So, I know he’s going to keep going.”

No question Suzuki will, too.

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Bergevin labelled him the key piece in the deal that also brought Tomas Tatar and a 2019 second-round pick to Montreal from Vegas when Max Pacioretty was traded to the Golden Knights in the fall of 2018. He’s done nothing but prove it ever since, with 28 goals and 82 points over his first 127 regular-season games in the NHL and nine goals and 11 assists in his limited playoff time.

“I think he’s super competitive,” said Staal. “Like a lot of the guys on our team, it’s the compete level that is really, really high. Obviously, the skillset is there, the intelligence is there, but you need to have that extra compete and that level of competitiveness to make differences like he has been. So that’s the No. 1 thing I love about him and all these guys is our compete and our willingness to do whatever it takes.”

That’s obvious throughout the Canadiens’ lineup, but most evident up the gut of it.

The kids have done their part, Danault has been an incarnation of Carbonneau and Staal has been so much better than the Canadiens could’ve hoped he’d be when they traded a couple of middling picks to pluck him out of Buffalo ahead of this year’s trade deadline. He’s been a completely different player from the one who had three goals and 10 points with the Sabres before withering with two goals and three points in his first 21 games with the Canadiens.

Meanwhile, Staal wouldn’t be here if Bergevin hadn’t recognized what he had in Kotkaniemi and Suzuki during last year’s playoffs. Neither would Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Corey Perry, Jon Merrill and Erik Gustaffson. The GM finished second in the voting for the Jim Gregory Award for GM of the Year, but he if he got the most first-place votes, it might have been for that realization alone.

And the Canadiens are hoping to celebrate Quebec’s Saint-Jean Baptiste Day by booking their trip to the Final, and they’ll be depending on Danault and Staal once again, and leaning heavily on Kotkaniemi and Suzuki.

“These kids are great players and huge parts of our group and our team,” said Staal. “Hopefully they can follow it up with a big one in Game 6 at home.”

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