Be careful what you wish for.
On Sunday, Tampa Bay mayor Jane Castor told reporters she would like the Lightning to lose Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in order to win a title on home ice. Jon Cooper’s club obliged on Monday night with a 3-2 overtime loss that has suddenly given life to an anemic Habs squad.
Tampa Bay certainly wasn’t beaten from pillar to post, but it lacked the focus and cutting edge that had allowed it to prevail against the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders. Despite owning 70.7% of the expected goals at 5-on-5, the Lightning never seemed in full control of the proceedings. They were perpetually one mistake away from disaster. Sure enough, a miscue early in overtime led to Josh Anderson’s game-winner.
Now Montreal travels to Tampa Bay with renewed hope—the sort of collective belief that had carried the team all the way to this showdown to begin with.
Granted, the Lightning started Game 4 with a flurry of attempts to put the Canadiens away. Enter Carey Price:
Though the 33-year-old garnered praise that should have been reserved for his defense in the first three rounds of the postseason, he earned every last plaudit on Monday night. The Lightning claimed 77.8% of the high-danger chances and peppered Price right out of the gate. Montreal’s typically stout defense was stumbling over itself as Tampa Bay poured on the pressure.
Price wouldn’t budge.
Oddly enough, this lousy start was…perfect for the Habs. There are few better ways to deflate your opponent than by withstanding their barrage only to draw blood on your first opportunity. They throw everything they have at you, and the moment they relent, you hit them with a haymaker.
In this case, Anderson broke the ice on a beautiful backhand feed by Nick Suzuki:
You could already see the cracks in Tampa Bay’s posture. As the Lightning try to change on a half-clearance, Montreal quickly transitions into offense. Pat Maroon and Mathieu Joseph get their assignments mixed up and the puck is in their net before they can sort it out. Tampa Bay’s bread and butter was its strength at the point of attack, but on Monday, it continually left you wanting more.
This wasn’t merely a goal either. It was the first lead Montreal had enjoyed all series, and as we know, the Habs are a very different team when they’re ahead (12-2 vs. 1-6).
That marker was accompanied by the realization that they could hang with the Lightning—at least on the night. This emboldened them and served as a reminder of what makes them tick. Shea Weber remembered that playoff scoring phenom Brayden Point is, in fact, eligible to be hit:
On its second goal, Montreal remembered that it’s allowed to take away Andrei Vasilevskiy’s eyes:
Speaking of netminders, Price remembered that he can indeed steal the show:
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay carried most of the action but abandoned its fundamentals. Inaccurate passes, ill-timed pinches. Most notably, there was no heavy congestion in front of Montreal’s net. Price was allowed to settle in and swallow any scoring chance that arose.
With the Habs’ great equalizer in position to excel, the Lightning appeared entirely beatable in Game 4. Jan Rutta was horrific throughout, standing up at his blue line when he should sag back and mismanaging the puck over and over again. Ondrej Palat seemed intent on ruining every design manufactured by the first line. The second forward unit might as well have stayed on the bench. And for the second straight outing, Vasilevskiy looked human.
Price was the goaltender in top form, and his teammates were back at their counterpunching best. It’s worth mentioning that a few key coaching decisions facilitated this bounce-back game by Montreal too. Dominique Ducharme scratched young center Jesperi Kotkaniemi as well as defensemen Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson. In their place, Jake Evans, Brett Kulak and Alexander Romanov joined the fray. As we know, Romanov scored a big 2-1 goal in the third frame. Anderson was slotted next to Suzuki and Cole Caufield, and he delivered two tallies. His second of the night won the game in overtime.
On yet another brutal sequence, Rutta takes too long to turn and skate with Anderson in the neutral zone. Though the original net drive is thwarted, Rutta is then beaten back to the slot and Anderson is free to bang in a loose puck:
The Habs executed their game plan to a tee: They absorbed Tampa Bay’s onslaught and waited for the fateful mistake that would ensure their survival. This approach requires superb goaltending. They received it. It also requires opportunistic scoring. Thanks to Ducharme’s tough choices, they generated that as well.
As a result, the Habs will head to Amalie Arena in hopes of extending the series and planting a seed of doubt in the minds of Lightning players.
Yes, Montreal remains one loss away from elimination. Yes, it still took overtime to topple a Tampa Bay group that didn’t seem 100% dialed in. Yes, only one club has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final. However, by taking their foot off the gas, the Lightning have left the door open for the Canadiens. That “Why not us?” chorus will only ring louder the longer the Habs can stick around.