I’m so pissed about this goal—the one the Lightning got with the score at 2-1 early in the third period in Game 1. The Canadiens turned it over in the neutral zone, and Tampa’s counterattack was calm, collected, and extremely lucky. Nikita Kucherov took it on the wing past the blue line, nowhere near a feasible shooting angle, but he backhanded a pass of some sort towards the crease and saw his prayers answered. The puck smacked off Montreal’s Ben Chiarot’s hand in front of his goalie, then stayed floating in a dangerous midair spot until Chiarot, trying to protect it from an incoming Ondrej Palat, knocked it into his own net. (Palat got credit for the goal initially, but it was later changed to be Kucherov’s first of two on the night.)
This kind of goal just is not fair. The Lightning are the defending champs, and they have the clear talent advantage, and they can effectively disrupt the Canadiens’ game. It’s Montreal who needs the big deflections and the lucky goals! But on top of outplaying their underdog opponents, the Lightning were also able to create their own breaks, and will into existence the moment that transformed the game from a tight and kind of ugly contest into a decisive victory.
This is going to be one of the goofier things I ever write on the site, but I thought Game 1 was a must-win for Montreal. The Islanders’ failures in Game 7 completely cemented my belief that it is impossible to beat this Tampa team in back-to-back games (they’re 13-0 off a loss since the start of last year’s run), and with this series-opening defeat, Montreal will now have to do that at some point if they want to lift the Cup. Winning every other game was only feasible if they won the first.
The Habs do have some positive experience on their side. It’s not just that they’ve been counted out at the beginnings of their series, but they’ve also been dismissed after play has begun. Winnipeg was the exception, but in the first round against Toronto, the Habs went down 3-1 after losing games 5-1, 2-1, and 4-0. You know what happened after that. And against Vegas in the “Stanley Cup Semifinals,” Montreal started by losing 4-1, prompted me to write a whole blog about how Carey Price deserved a better chance at a Cup than he was getting, and then won four out of the next five to get to where they are today. With those bounce-backs under their belts, the Canadiens, naturally, tried to use that experience with adversity to put the clampdown on any thoughts of panicking after just one rough loss.
“It’s one game of a seven-game series,” Jeff Petry said afterward. “So, we have to use what we did in Vegas, that experience, that mindset to rebound and bounce back for Game 2. We’re going to watch some clips on what we can do better, and I think everybody knows that our effort is there. But I think that we can all bring a little bit more. I think that’s what we did in Vegas and that’s what we’re looking to do for Game 2.”
That’s what you’re supposed to say. But the Canadiens aren’t in Kansas anymore. (Or, uh, Nevada. Whatever.) The Leafs were a good team, I think. And Vegas was a good team, I’m almost positive. And Winnipeg was pretty decent too, now that I mention it. But the Lightning are a frickin’ great team—something maybe even beyond that, actually. Over the last four years this group has demonstrated consistent, long-term dominance, and in the past 11 months or so they’ve been an impossible playoff foe—one who boasts the best goalie in the world and the best defenseman in the world and the forward lines that most scare the heck out of me at this moment in time. I don’t know how the Canadiens can hope to compete with them. But good on this team for trying.