We’ve finally arrived at the epic conclusion to this long, strange season. The Stanley Cup Finals began last night in Tampa. It pits the Cinderella Canadiens versus the heavyweight defending champion Lightning.
If we were to base it on Game One, then the Bolts are an overwhelming favorite to repeat. However, one game doesn’t make a series. Especially when the Habs have already gotten this far. They proved they were resilient with lots of character in their 3-1 comeback over the Maple Leafs in the first round. Then after sweeping the Jets, they won twice in Vegas and then wrapped up the Stanley Cup Semifinal upset of the Golden Knights in six games thanks to overtime hero Artturo Lehkonen.
The real question headed into Wednesday night’s Game Two is how do the Canadiens respond to losing Game One 5-1. It wasn’t so much a blowout as much as it was the thorough Lightning methodically pulling away from Les Habitants for the victory on home ice. They did what they were supposed to do.
The Bolts were led by the potent top line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. Matched against the Habs’ top scoring line of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Tyler Toffoli, the more experienced cohesive trio won the match-up with ease. They were on for three of the five goals highlighted by Palat setting up defenseman Erik Cernak for the series’ first goal, along with Kucherov tallying twice including off a Point face-off win that made it 4-1 in the third. He also got credit for the second goal when his shot caromed off Montreal defenseman Ben Chiarot with Palat in the vicinity. They originally awarded it to Palat, who seemed to get a piece of it. But changed it later.
That wasn’t the only goal that was changed. With Tampa leading by one in the second period, a good forecheck resulted in Blake Coleman looking to have gotten his first of the series. He fired a loose puck past Carey Price at 5:47 for a 2-0 lead. But it was later credited to Yanni Gourde, who drove the net to distract Price. Apparently, the puck went off him. He is up to six goals with his most notable the shorthanded clincher in Game Seven against the Islanders.
For much of the second, the Bolts started to take control. They were using their team speed to create tough scoring chances on Price. The Montreal netminder was sharp. He gave his team an opportunity to come back with his best save coming when he denied Tyler Johnson on the doorstep. It was a superb pad stop to stop a backhand in tight that would’ve made it 3-0.
Instead, the Canadiens caught a break when thanks to Shea Weber jumping into the rush with Jesperi Kotkaniemi, a Chiarot shot banked off a Tampa player and past Andrei Vasilevskiy at 17:40 to cut it to 2-1. Things got more interesting when a lob pass for a breaking Brendan Gallagher got to him onside. In on Vasilevskiy, he got off a contested backhand thanks to the back checking Ryan McDonagh. It didn’t have enough to beat Vasilevskiy, who turned it away. That was the Canadiens’ best chance to draw even.
Earlier in the period, he denied a Weber bid one on one. He didn’t make a lot of saves, but finished with 18 overall. No clean shots beat him. It was on Tuesday that the former Vezina winner finished second behind Marc-Andre Fleury for the 2021 Vezina for the game’s top goalie. Vasilevskiy has been in the top three the past three seasons. He won it in ’18-19. Last year, Connor Hellebuyck won the award.
The game changed in the third period. One thing that didn’t was the physical play. There were plenty of battles during and following plays. You had your share of scrums. These teams didn’t have any feeling out process. They finished checks and hit hard throughout Game One. In fact, they combined for 115 hits. It definitely heated up in the final 20 minutes thanks to some inconsistency from the officials Gary Bettman believes are the best.
Before the fireworks started, Mikhail Sergachev jumped up and got the puck to Kucherov. With Palat driving the net, he threw the puck there. Looking for a deflection, the Russian scoring wizard had the puck go off Chiarot and past Price for a 3-1 Lightning lead at the two-minute mark. As I noted earlier, it really looked like Palat touched it. But they would change the scoring to Kucherov from Sergachev.
Things intensified when Eric Staal didn’t take kindly to Cernak roughing him up. They mixed it up with each being sent off for matching roughing minors. Cernak wasn’t done. He would later be involved in a controversial play with Kotkaniemi that incensed the Canadiens’ bench.
Before that occurred, acting Montreal coach Luke Richardson didn’t adjust the match-up of Suzuki against Point. It had been advantage Cooper all night. On a key draw in the Montreal end, Suzuki got beat cleanly by Point, who won the puck back to Kucherov. Before he even shot, I called goal. He was too wide open from an area he does damage. Even though he didn’t score a goal versus the Islanders, he picked up plenty of assists. This time, he had enough time and space to fire a laser past Price for his seventh of the postseason at 11:25. That made it 4-1.
Then came a battle in front of Vasilevskiy between Sergachev and Gallagher. Already in a foul mood, he was accidentally cut by Sergachev. Coleman was sent off for roughing to hand Montreal a key power play with 6:18 remaining. Richardson didn’t pull Price right away for a six-on-four. Instead, the Lightning did a good job on the penalty kill. They went 2-for-2 on the night.
Before the final stoppage following the successful penalty kill, Chiarot leveled Kotkaniemi against the boards with a high hit. While he did finish his check, it looked suspect. That’s because it was. Predictably, an infuriated Kotkaniemi retaliated by hi-sticking Cernak to get the reaction minor penalty with 4:09 left. When NBC returned, replays showed that Cernak got his elbow up into Kotkaniemi’s kisser. It should’ve been a penalty on Cernak. Instead, Kotkaniemi was in the box as Montreal fumed.
Even though the penalty was killed, Joel Edmundson roughed up Gourde to send the Lightning back on the man-advantage. The Habs’ penalty kill has been well documented. They only had allowed three power play goals all playoffs and were clicking at 94 percent.
Maybe that’s why Cooper went with his number one unit. It worked with Point and Kucherov combining to set up Stamkos for a one-timer that went through Price at 18:50 for a 5-1 finish. Price had previously robbed Stamkos much earlier one-on-one with an amazing glove save. But this was different. It was Stamkos in his office with the game already decided.
Kucherov is up to a postseason leading 30 points (7-23-30). He’ll top many lists for the Conn Smythe. I would still put Price if his team pulls this off or Point over Kucherov. Point is an amazing player, who does so many things well. He centers that line and is splendid as well as clutch. The nine-game goal streak he had that fell one short of Reggie Leach’s postseason record speaks volumes. It’s astonishing that Tampa stole Point in the third round of the ’14 NHL Draft. Yikes.
It’ll be very interesting to see how Montreal responds later tonight. They didn’t play well in a 4-1 loss at Vegas in the first game either. But that didn’t stop them from posting a big road win to even that series. Most would agree the Lightning are a step up. They’re more skilled, grittier and even tougher. Will Richardson adjust the match-up so he can keep Suzuki, Caufield and Toffoli away from the Point line? What about Phillip Danault, Gallagher and Lehkonen? They normally draw the checking assignment against the top scoring line. Will it become a chess match? That remains to be seen.
Two quick notes. Habs interim coach Dominique Ducharme can return from COVID protocol for Game Three when the series shifts to the Bell Centre in Montreal. Joel Armia didn’t play on Monday night due to the protocol. Jake Evans returned to the lineup and played with Staal and Corey Perry. Armia is an important energy player, who provides a combination of grit, size and speed. He also is a good penalty killer and effective on the forecheck. I would think he’ll be back if he’s cleared.
McDonagh had another strong defensive game for Tampa logging 22:00 including 2:36 shorthanded. No Bolt received more even strength time (19:24) than the former Ranger who again is facing the team that drafted him. His defense has been splendid. It’s been nice to watch him flourish in a better situation. Even if it’s a little gut wrenching, I’m glad he gets the chance to shine. He already helped the Bolts win one Cup in last year’s bubble. This is different because they’re playing in front of fans. It makes a difference.
I’m hopeful that Montreal will allow more fans to attend the Stanley Cup Finals than just 3,500. Look how many fans hung outside the building when they wrapped it up against Vegas. The 3,500 fans had to stay inside until things were safer so they could exit. Fireworks were set off. Just imagine what the scene will be for Game Three. It’s going to be chaotic. They’ve waited a long time for this. Twenty-eight years to be exact. Some of my close Habs friends like Anne have never experienced this. I would love to see them win. It’ll be tough.
Here’s hoping for a much better Game Two. Hockey deserves it. That includes the four blind mice. I couldn’t resist. 😁 Enjoy the second game.