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TAMPA, Florida – The perfect team for these pandemic times, dressed in the Amalie Arena locker room on Monday night. Just as the NHL postseason began to regain a bit of normalcy, when last summer’s Canadian bubbles were replaced with home stadium games – and before the crowd was no less – the Montreal Canadiens arrived.
They reached the Stanley Cup final against Tampa Bay Lightning, the reigning champions, with an interim coach after ousting two of the league’s giants and despite being knocked out not once or twice but three times in their first round streak. Well, this may piss off the nice folks in La Belle Province, but any other season, Montreal – which ended in the bottom half of the NHL with the fewest points of any playoff team – probably wouldn’t even have qualified for the postseason.
“You are exactly where you imagined,” said Lightning Coach Jon Cooper on Monday morning. “They didn’t go the same way, so it looks different because they look like the Cinderella team. But I don’t think so for a second. And nobody in our room does that. “
The Canadiens reached this stage through adaptation and adaptation, and if they want to end Canada’s nearly three decades-long drought and add another trophy to their trophy box, they will have to acclimatise again. They allowed the first two goals of Game 1 and the last three when lightning rolled to a 5-1 win.
At no point on Monday night did the Lightning seem confused by Montreal’s suffocation in the neutral zone, its opportunistic counterattack, or Carey Price’s brilliance on the net, all elements that fueled the unlikely onslaught of Canadians. Montreal’s puck mismanagement resulted in a bevy of sales, and Tampa capitalized on it. Nikita Kucherov scored twice for Tampa Bay and Brayden Point delivered three assists in an outstanding all-round game.
While their performance last month – 11 wins in 13 games – proved they were among the best in the league, the Canadiens could be forgiven for wanting to prove themselves once more. The last team to finish the regular season in 18th place and reach the cup final was Philadelphia in 2010. Vancouver reached the finals the next season, and no team from Canada had made it there since.
That’s a source of great fear in Canada, but especially in Montreal, which won a record 24 titles but hasn’t won a championship since 1993 when it defeated the Los Angeles Kings in five games.
In that shortened 56-game season, the Canadiens soared, then collapsed. They fired their coach, then their goalkeeping coach. They lost Price and defense attorney Shea Weber to injuries, then Joel Armia to a positive coronavirus test. They played their last 25 games in 44 days and lost 15 of them, including the last five. The playoffs only attracted because Montreal finished fourth in a unique division with all seven Canadian teams.
But his general manager, Marc Bergevin, likes to say that there are players who get you in and there are players who get you through. He reworked the squad in the off-season and again at close of trade, winning six Stanley Cup-winning players including defenseman Joel Edmundson, substitute goalkeeper Jake Allen and forwards Eric Staal, Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry.
The Canadiens barely had time to practice after Dominique Ducharme – who replaced Claude Julien as head coach on February 24th – installed his new systems and teamed up in the middle of their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They stunned the Leafs in seven games, swept the Winnipeg Jets and throttled the Vegas Golden Knights in six games, taking to the streets 7-2 as they were backed by Price’s brilliance and a stifling defensive streak.
Led by center Phillip Danault, the Canadiens silenced their opponents’ top scorers in each round: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner failed to score, while the Maple Leafs lost their last three games; Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois only managed one for Winnipeg; and Vegass Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlson together for a grand total of none.
“Playing our game to the best of our ability will work against every team we are currently playing,” said Montreal assistant Luke Richardson, who took on coaching duties after Ducharme was infected with the coronavirus. (Ducharme has missed the last four games against Vegas but expects to return for Game 3 in Montreal.)
But on Monday the Canadiens didn’t play to the best of their ability, on the contrary. The Lightning are deeper than Lake Baikal, with four lines that score, choke and drag, and a goalkeeper, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is just as extraordinary as Price.
Vasilevskiy saved 18 of 19 shots, his only flaw was a shot in the second period that ricocheted off two of his own players.