Dominant Lightning Bolts on the verge of history, why going to a Stanley Cup game is worth everything, salty NYR fans, Price vs Lundqvist, a funny Del Zotto exchange


Maybe I should’ve known better. But admittedly, I didn’t. I thought the Canadiens could give the Lightning a series. So far, the Bolts are proving why they’re defending champs. They’ve flexed their championship muscle to outscore the Habs 14-5 in taking the first three games of the Stanley Cup.

On Monday night at Bell Centre in Montreal, they’ll go for the sweep. It’s too bad only 3,500 fans are allowed to attend the Canadiens’ first Stanley Cup games in 28 years. Not sure it would have made a difference. But those are passionate fans who love their Habs. That city lives and dies with them. Seeing the energy both inside and outside the home arena certainly signifies how much it means for them to have their team back playing for the Cup. Even though it might end in two nights, they have waited a long time to see their Les Habitants get this far. Kudos to the extremely loyal Montreal fans.

The bottom line is the Lightning have acted like a true NHL heavyweight in the series. Not that they have been perfect. Far from it if you watched their 3-1 win in Game Two. One in which they owed it all to the game’s best goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy. A more desperate Canadiens dominated for long stretches, but were turned away time and again by the unflappable Vasilevskiy, who stopped 42 of 43 shots in earning the game’s First Star. That along with some great hustle and determination from Blake Coleman broke the Habs’ back at the conclusion of the second period. His diving goal coming with over a second left from Barclay Goodrow proved to be the crushing game-winner.

Those last second goals hurt. So too did a total misplay from normally dependable Joel Edmundson that allowed Ondrej Palat to score a gimme that put that game away. Palat is one of those underrated glue guys that doesn’t get the ink of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman or Vasilevskiy. But the smart two-way left wing who completes that dynamic top line, makes things happen. He’s always around the puck, more often than not winning key battles by keeping plays alive. Just ask the Islanders.

It’s not only the stars for coach Jon Cooper’s Lightning. But those crucial secondary scorers who provide the grunt work that make the difference. It was Yanni Gourde who haunted the Islanders along with Anthony Cirelli, who is such a smart player. Even without gritty Alex Killorn, who’s missed the last two games due to an injury, the Bolts are a total T-E-A-M. In Game Three at Montreal on Friday night, you had old hat Tyler Johnson shift back to center. All he did is score two goals with both putting the Habs in three-goal deficits. That was too much to overcome in their first home Stanley Cup game since they finished off the Kings at the old Forum in 1993. Johnson will be sacrificed due to the Lightning’ salary cap when the season ends. He’ll have his name engraved on two Cups and wind up playing a bigger role elsewhere. He’s been a good player for Tampa.

You can have your pick of players in supporting roles for the soon to be crowned Lightning. No. I can’t see the Canadiens making history by becoming only the second team in Stanley Cup history to climb out of a 3-0 hole. Only the 1942 Maple Leafs did it to win the Cup. Of course, you also had the Islanders, Flyers and Kings accomplish it. But in a different round. Only the Kings went onto win the Cup of the latter three. Sharks fans really despise them for good reason. So do Ranger fans. But I digress. I don’t want the Habs to get swept on home ice. I have some good friends over there. May they at least get a win in Game Four like the Rangers did. If you have to lose, it’s better to do it on the road.

When you have defensemen like Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak scoring for Tampa, that sums it up. Almost all six D have been involved offensively in this series. Ryan McDonagh doesn’t have a goal, but has set up one while playing stellar shutdown defense alongside the very physical Cernak, who really loves to throw his weight around. David Savard also has an assist while playing a third pair role after coming over from Columbus. He’s a strong physical player, who’ll draw interest this summer. You also have former Hab Mikhail Sergachev. While he hasn’t done much offensively, the young left skating defenseman has been trusted by Cooper as that third left D behind Hedman and McDonagh to log important minutes.

There aren’t many holes with this team. When you have battle tested veteran Pat Maroon playing hard on the fourth line and they can plug youngsters Ross Colton and Mathieu Joseph (assist in Game 3), the depth is incredible. Cooper has also taken advantage of the match-up between Point line and Nick Suzuki line which have been severely outplayed. Give Suzuki credit for getting a couple past Vasilevskiy, who otherwise has been almost unbeatable. He’s only allowed five goals on 97 shots including four on 78 over the last two games. Although he allowed a pair of bad ones to Suzuki and Corey Perry last night, he shut the door on a rushing Ben Chiarot to calm things down before a Coleman empty netter. More often than not, the 26-year old Russian netminder makes the critical stops when he must. Just as he did to finish off the Panthers, Hurricanes and Islanders. It’s why you could make a case for him for the Conn Smythe. But that honor probably will go to Kucherov, who leads in postseason scoring with 32 points (8-24-32).

You can’t go wrong with either Point (14-9-23) or Vasilevskiy (15-6, 1.94 GAA, .938 save percentage, 4 shutouts). Those are the top three candidates headed into Game Four unless Carey Price turns it around. I’ve seen a lot of snide remarks about his play in the three games. But who’s most responsible for the Canadiens being here? Exactly. It isn’t only the goalie, who hasn’t had his best series. He admitted he can be better after last night when asked by the obnoxious Canadian media. They really are. How many goals do they want to blame him for? Has he been perfect? No. He’d love to have the Hedman power play goal back that put his team in an early 2-0 hole. But they’ve been outclassed. Even the return of interim coach Dominique Ducharme wasn’t enough to turn the tide. At least he used his timeout at 2-0 down. Phillip Danault scored to get the Habs within a goal. They wound up with 17 shots, playing much better. But that was as close as they got.

It wasn’t Price who got caught on a bad line change that led directly to Kucherov burying a ridiculous backhand one-timer off a two-on-none pass from Palat to make it 3-1 early in the second. Price also had the misfortune of a Joseph save bouncing off his skate right to Johnson for an easy backhand finish that allowed Tampa to score two more quick goals for a second consecutive period. Even with Suzuki finding the five-hole on Vasilevskiy from a bad angle late in the period, the game was over. Tampa shut everything down in a stifling third similar to what they did to the Islanders in Game Seven. There was no room and little scoring chances until Perry beat Vasilevskiy with Price pulled with 4:02 left. The trouble was it only made it 5-3 due to Johnson abusing over matched Montreal defenseman Erik Gustafsson. Oy. Why is he playing over Alex Romanov? A Coleman empty netter sealed it 50 seconds later.

The Canadiens got here by rallying past the Maple Leafs from a 3-1 deficit. That included winning Games Five and Six in sudden death. They dominated Winnipeg and then stunned the Golden Knights behind the brilliance of Price and timely scoring from Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Tyler Toffoli, Paul Byron and overtime hero Artturo Lehkonen. Plus the Danault line with Brendan Gallagher and Lehkonen completely stifled Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Chandler Stephenson and even William Karlsson. The notion that they lucked into a Stanley Cup appearance is ridiculous. They weren’t favored to beat Toronto and were huge underdogs against Vegas. It’s okay to give the Habs credit for what they have done.

What run is more impressive? The ’13-14 Rangers over the mediocre Flyers in seven, huge 3-1 comeback to upset the Pens and six-game win over the Habs minus Price. Or the ’21 Canadiens winning in seven over the Leafs from a 3-1 deficit, sweeping the Jets without foolish Mark Schiefele, and surprising the Golden Knights in six. It’s close. But the edge goes to Montreal, who are getting beaten by a great team. The Kings weren’t that. They needed third period comebacks, questionable officiating and overtimes to win all three home games in a closely contested five-game series. Maybe had Alain Vigneault not sat back, the Rangers prevail. We’ll never know.

Which leads me to my next point. The salty fans. Somehow, this Stanley Cup has morphed into Carey Price versus Henrik Lundqvist. Who’s better? Only foolish Ranger fans could start this crap. We’re not talking about the knowledgeable fans who respect tradition and history without having the sudden urge to bring up such nonsense. But the basement dwellers who stare at charts and graphs all day.

Personally, I think Price and Lundqvist are comparable. Price has a Hart and Vezina to his name while Lundqvist also won a Vezina. He could’ve won the Hart in ’11-12, but lost out to Evgeni Malkin. He actually finished third behind Stamkos. Lundqvist has five top three Vezina finishes including his win where he beat out <gulp> Jonathan Quick. Price has two top three Vezina finishes including the dominant ’14-15 where he swept the Hart, Pearson, Vezina and Jennings to be named a First All-Star. That dwarfs anything Lundqvist has ever accomplished in the regular season. Consider that Price won 44 games out of 66 starts while posting a 1.96 GAA with a .933 save percentage and nine shutouts. As great as Lundqvist was, he never won 40 games despite having stronger supporting casts. Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, P.K. Subban, David Desharnais, Andrei Markov, Alex Galchenyuk, Brandon Prust and Gallagher aren’t on par with Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Anton Stralman, Derick Brassard, Benoit Pouliot, Mats Zuccarello, Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore. The ’14 and ’15 Blueshirts were deeper and should’ve won a Cup. 2015 stings more due to how they lost. By that point, Boyle and Stralman were on the other side with Ryan Callahan. A horrible mistake from Glen Sather, who somehow still cashes a paycheck from Dolan. Mystifying.

Right now, Price is 33 having carried his team to its first Stanley Cup Final since ’93. He never got the chance to go head to head in the ’14 Eastern Conference Final against Lundqvist. But Henrik edged Price in the ’17 first round rematch. A series the Rangers prevailed in six. He was a little better that series to win the one true match-up of great goalies. It would’ve been nice to see them go up against each other more. It never happened due largely to the Lightning and then the Rangers’ decision to remake the roster with Lundqvist in decline. He did have three cracks at it. You can’t tell me the Devils or Lightning had better teams in ’12 and ’15. The same way I’ll never believe the Senators behind well respected Craig Anderson were better than the Rangers in ’17. It is what it is.

After missing the entire 2021 season due to heart valve replacement surgery, it’s uncertain if Lundqvist will be able to return. At 39, his health and well being are the most important things along with his family. I would love to see him get medically cleared so he can go out on his own terms. In 887 career games, he has won 459 games while posting a respectable 2.43 GAA, .918 save percentage and 64 shutouts. Excellent numbers that should one day get him into the Hockey Hall of Fame. We’ll see if he can play again.

In regards to Price, he hasn’t made the postseason as much as Lundqvist. Let’s just say Montreal hasn’t been as consistent in the regular season. They haven’t had the best teams. They made the playoffs this year due to realignment. Playing in the North Division helped them. However, they’ve proven they deserve to be where they are. Let’s not forget that Price missed a lot of time due to a concussion. It was Jake Allen helping them reach the playoffs. Had Price been healthy, they would’ve finished higher in the standings.

On Aug. 16, Price will celebrate his 34th birthday. In a career that’s over a decade, he has won 360 games in 707 appearances. 695 have been starts. The numbers are similar. He’s posted a 2.50 GAA, .917 save percentage and 49 shutouts. So, at five years younger than Lundqvist, Price has 99 fewer wins and 15 less shutouts. If you believe he still has peak years left with the Canadiens improving, then he should reach those marks. There’s really not much difference between them.

If you want to point out how well Lundqvist has performed in the postseason, by all means do so. But don’t use weird statistics that have no basis. At present, this is how they compare.

PLAYOFFS

Lundqvist 130 GP 117 GS 61-67 2.30 .921 10

Price, C. 90 GP 87 GS 42-44 2.41 .918 8

Again, pretty comparable. What’s the difference? They’re both great players who have meant a lot to their respective Original Six franchises. Neither has a Cup. Both have now made it that far once. Until Price’s career is over, we can’t say definitively who’s better. For now, it’s a draw.

Does any of this stuff matter? Of course not. It’s petty nonsense drummed up by bitter NYR fans who have nothing better to do than mock a great goalie. The truth is these Lightning are way better than the team the Rangers lost to. They’re not only supremely skilled. But bigger, stronger, faster and grittier. Montreal is up against the best team since the Red Wings dynasty. That’s why it’s playing out the way it is. If Tampa sweeps the Cup, they match what the Red Wings did in both ’97 and ’98. It hasn’t been done since.

Now, let’s get to the next topic. I’ve seen some “fans” question diehard Montreal Canadiens fans if it’s worth shelling out top dollar to see their team lose in the Stanley Cup. It’s the STANLEY CUP! Hell-O! It’s worth everything to see your team play for the Cup. It doesn’t happen often.

Like Jess put it, it’s a memory that’ll last forever. That’s why I purchased the Stanley Cup Yearbook when we went to Game Three in 2014. A Kings shutout that sucked. It meant going down three games to none. Just like the Habs did yesterday. But the electricity, atmosphere and energy level at Madison Square Garden that night was worth it. It didn’t matter that they lost. As much as it hurt, that was an amazing run. I can remember going crazy when they clinched Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final against the Canadiens. A 1-0 shutout in which they couldn’t have played better. The Lundqvist sprawling save on Thomas Vanek. Boyle to Moore. The eruption. The fireworks at the end. The feeling of euphoria. You never wanted to leave. That’s what it’s all about. I never thought we’d ever see a Stanley Cup game. I’m glad there are still passionate fans like Jess and her friend Christina who understand what it means. Everything. Once in a lifetime.

What would this column be without a little fun stuff? This cool exchange with former Ranger Michael Del Zotto yesterday. I’m pretty sure he enjoyed it as did Lindsay Berra. The awesome granddaughter of Yogi Berra.

It’s nice to see Del Zotto doing well. He certainly went through a challenging time earlier in his career. But he matured and took it seriously. And yes. While I doubt MDZ will ever return to NYC, he’s the kind of character player the Rangers need on their defense to fill in and play a role. It can’t just be all kids. I hope someone picks up Del Zotto. He plays the game the right way. That’s why he was a plus on a bad Columbus team while Seth Jones was a huge minus. Buyer beware. Good luck to MDZ.

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 New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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