The Canadiens Deserved That
9:19 AM EDT on July 6, 2021
Habs Magic isn't dead quite yet. This Canadiens team that had spent the postseason shitting out horseshoes looked like it had finally choked on reality in the form of a markedly superior Lightning squad, which consistently outplayed them through three games and handily won even the one they didn't. So, down 3-0 and facing the prospect of watching the Cup being handed to Tampa as a nice little souvenir of their brief visit to Montreal, Habs coach Dominique Ducharme hit all the buttons within reach to try to squeeze some last juice out of this blessed run. Some of them felt like panic buttons. Yet every single one of his moves paid off.
The series is headed back to Tampa and the Canadiens are still alive, after a 3-2 overtime win before 3,500 fans that sounded like five times as many. (Perhaps that was aided by crowd outside—which eventually engaged in running battles with police amid clouds of tear gas, but that's basically expected in Montreal at this point win or lose, and anyway it wasn't even enough tear gas to bump "fans go home happy!" from the lede.)
Ducharme was busy with lineup changes for this one, and he had the touch. In was Jake Evans, out (unexpectedly and boldly) was Jesperi Kotkaniemi, so naturally it was Evans who assisted on a huge third-period goal. That goal was scored by Alexander Romanov, for just his second point since February; Romanov was put into the lineup as part of a wholesale substitution of the Canadiens' third defensive pairing.
But Ducharme's biggest move was a line shuffle that bumped up Josh Anderson to the Habs' scoring line, alongside Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. All the lineup changes, especially this one, were made with speed in mind, as the Canadiens had failed to keep up with the Lightning's pace and to even get into position to win the puck battles that have been their bailiwick all postseason. Anderson rewarded Ducharme's faith by scoring two goals, the first mostly off the work of Suzuki, but the second, the overtime winner, almost singlehandedly by his own skating and doggedness.
Do yourself the favor of listening to the French call on that one.
Anderson's speed fits nicely alongside the positioning and stickwork of Suzuki, who's been Montreal's most consistent forward in a series without many of those. Assuming Ducharme keeps that line together for Game 5, it'll be fascinating to watch if and when Jon Cooper decided to take advantage of the last change to sic his vaunted checking line on them. But for this one night at least, nobody could keep up with Anderson.
Tampa's not panicking after the loss, nor should they be. They still forced turnovers, they still earned opportunities, they pinged iron when they might have found twine. For all Montreal's resilience in these playoffs, it's the Lightning who still have yet to drop back-to-back games. Though they will never say so, I can't imagine the Lightning players are too sad about having the chance to clinch on home ice on Wednesday (give or take a hurricane), in front of home fans and loved ones—something they couldn't do last year in the Edmonton bubble. They don't even need to change anything up to still be heavy favorites in Game 5 and the series. “What could we have done different? Probably not hit as many posts as we hit," said Cooper. He was half-joking, but only half, and that's a pretty good position for a coach and a team to be in.
But there's also dignity in avoiding a sweep. Especially what would have been the first Cup Final sweep since the Red Wings powerwashed the Capitals in 1998. Montreal merited and maybe needed a win in this series to validate this weird little run as something more than a fluke, and while that won't be decided by history until their results of the next few seasons, the Canadiens deserved to hold their heads high and have the bounces go their way, if just for one night.