Throughout their Cinderella postseason run, the Montreal Canadiens have brought a dimension to the table that no opponent could solve: killer instinct. They haven’t controlled the action or overwhelmed teams with their firepower. They’ve buckled down defensively and gone straight for the jugular the moment it was exposed.
On Monday night, they finally met their match and then some in a demoralizing 5-1 loss. Jon Cooper’s club proved its championship mettle last season and has carried that trait into the 2020-21 playoffs. Though the Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t playing remotely as well this year, the sense that they’ll get the job done in the end looms over every contest. They possess great depth, experience, special teams, goaltending and a knack for producing timely, back-breaking offense.
The Lightning were far from perfect in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, but they announced early and often that they wouldn’t melt in the face of Montreal’s bend-don’t-break system and collective physicality. Ben Chiarot and Josh Anderson were particularly keen on setting a combative tone. Tampa Bay answered right back by taking the fight to the Canadiens’ front door:
Cooper’s men didn’t back down for a second. In fact, they may have been a bit overzealous at times, but they displayed a willingness to take on this new challenge. They’re not looking past the Habs whatsoever. They’re determined to plow through them.
After a feeling-out process to start the first period, Tampa Bay gave Montreal another taste of its own medicine: a speedy and lethal counterattack.
In previous series, the Habs would push the action to the perimeter, wait for a mistake and then launch into a rush before the opposition could settle into its defensive posture. Time and time again, Montreal was off to the races. On Monday night, the Canadiens were the team that was caught off guard. Tampa Bay’s first three goals were the direct result of Montreal turnovers that allowed the Lightning to get downhill in a hurry:
But when the Canadiens attempted to strike on their rapid-fire attacks, Andrei Vasilevskiy was there to slam the door:
The 26-year-old keeps getting better—especially in the playoffs, where he’s shifted from borderline liability to steadfast insurance policy. He looks cool, calm and collected while still boasting the eye-popping athleticism to stymie the opposition at key moments. Carey Price can’t be blamed for his team’s loss in Game 1, but he certainly wasn’t as intimidating between the pipes as his counterpart either.
The only puck that found its way into the Lightning net deflected off two different Tampa Bay defenders:
That’s the type of luck that was required to beat Vasilevskiy on Monday.
Throughout the evening, Tampa appeared to edge out Montreal in every department that the Habs had claimed as their own.
How about some more counters?
A little urgency on defense?
Offense off the forecheck?
A power play marker to seal the deal?
Across the board, Montreal succumbed to a better version of itself in Game 1. All of the ingredients that have fueled the Habs’ success were used against them in a lopsided defeat. The numbers felt eerily reminiscent of Montreal’s too: Tampa Bay registered 45.7% of the shot attempts, 46.5% of the scoring chances and 53.3% of the high-danger chances.
What’s worse, Tampa Bay has a few aces up its sleeve that the Habs could only dream of.
First off, there’s the ridiculous talent level:
The Habs have reached this point by smothering the opposition’s stars. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were limited to one goal in seven games. Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois didn’t score a single time. Mark Stone was held pointless.
In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov exploded for two goals and six points. Yikes.
Then there’s Victor Hedman, one of the finest stretch passers in the world who also happens to be a swift-skating, 6’6”, 241-pound Norris Trophy winner. Deploying a No. 1 defenseman of that caliber and size is a true luxury, and he finally seems to be shaking off any lingering injury issues. In Game 1, he made sure to leave his mark as often as possible, kick-starting Tampa Bay’s offense with accurate cross-ice darts that put the forwards in great positions.
Moreover, he tormented Montreal with his reach, breaking up plays no other blueliner would have any business disrupting:
Following an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Lightning have retooled, refocused and emerged as a juggernaut that can do it all. They can shut teams down, they can wear teams out, they can score off the cycle or the rush, they’re solid on the penalty kill and they’re terrifying on the power play.
There is a silver lining for the Habs, though: They also lost the opening contest against Vegas one round ago. They’ve been here before.
If they want any chance of stealing home ice advantage from the Lightning, they’ll need to stay patient and enforce their style of play. In Game 1, the roles were reversed and Tampa Bay was the club that was capitalizing on counters. That can’t happen again.