By the Tampa Bay Lightning’s standards, Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final was a mess. Jon Cooper’s troops allowed Dominique Ducharme’s to cross off every item on their checklist: The Habs scored first, routinely caught Tampa Bay’s defensemen flat-footed and provided Carey Price with the clear sightlines required for him to stand on his head.
Letting a scrappy underdog back into a series is always cause for concern. Well…maybe for any team but the Lightning.
On Wednesday night, Tampa Bay shrugged off any talk of a comeback with another close-out clinic to dispatch the Montreal Canadiens. The Lightning conceded 22 shots in a low-event 1-0 shutout. They registered as many high-danger chances in Game 4 alone as both teams combined for in Game 5. Yeah, it was that kind of affair.
Ducharme’s club was just the latest victim of Tampa Bay’s lockdown hockey, as the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders each failed to get on the scoresheet when the Lightning eliminated them earlier in the postseason. That’s remarkable. Moreover, it’s the kind of versatility that reflects their new championship DNA. When the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders, they can still get the job done by buckling down defensively and waiting for the opportunity to punch in a pivotal goal.
In the first period, though, Game 5 didn’t feel too far removed from Monday’s underwhelming contest. Tampa Bay enjoyed solid possession time (52.9 CF%) and decent looks, but it couldn’t quite convert—whether that was due to an unnecessary pass or execution that was a hair off the mark:
Other high-powered clubs might have begun to panic in this situation. Tampa Bay had squandered the previous outing and was once again struggling to produce that final touch. But the Lightning’s poise shone through. Cooper’s men remained patient because they knew that the battle for the ice-breaker would determine the outcome. After all, his group went 16-2 when scoring first. Montreal was 12-2 under those circumstances. If Tampa Bay could steer the Habs to the perimeter and avoid massive blunders, its roster was better armed to manufacture the ever-important opening goal.
Tampa Bay’s three-zone focus was particularly evident on the penalty kill. While Montreal had generated key moments on the power play in the previous three rounds, the Lightning refused to give up any ground when down a man. They pursued the puck with boundless energy and wouldn’t even let the Habs set up in the offensive zone:
There was no doubting the Lightning’s effort level. They hustled and fought with the desperation you might expect from a team trailing in a series—not the one leading it 3-1. When you can channel a sense of urgency up and down the lineup in all phases of the game, that’s bound to pay off in the end.
With about six-and-a-half minutes remaining in the second frame, their grunt work was rewarded:
On this sequence, the Lightning demonstrate a few of the elements that make them such a daunting foe. Anthony Cirelli foils Montreal’s breakout, the team clamps down on the Habs along the wall to ultimately regain possession and the puck moves crisply along the blue line to put Erik Cernak in scoring position.
Most importantly, watch Ross Colton bolt toward the net to gain inside leverage on Joel Edmundson. The veteran defenseman is completely flustered by the rookie’s determination, which results in the Stanley Cup-clinching goal.
Across that five-man unit, the Lightning flashed their hustle, smarts and killer instinct.
From that point onward, Tampa Bay shut it down. Montreal could barely register a chance of note before pulling Price for an extra attacker. The Lightning’s forwards applied furious back pressure to nip any Canadiens designs in the bud:
On the couple of occasions when Montreal did slip through, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy took center stage:
By and large, however, Montreal saw more all-or-nothing blocks than quality opportunities:
Fresh off a Stanley Cup win in 2019-20, the Lightning nevertheless put their bodies on the line and displayed the type of sacrifice that forced Alex Killorn into surgery for a broken fibula. This was a stunning display of commitment and fearlessness—the very same ingredients that pushed them over the hump. These days, every last player is willing to take one for the team.
The Lightning might be the best outfit in the salary cap era. If they aren’t, they’re definitely the most adaptable. From game to game, their approach shifts as they see fit and a different line, pairing or individual rises to the occasion. They’re lethal on the rush, tenacious on the forecheck, brilliant on special teams, and they can downright smother your attack. But they also take the long view in order to never get rattled by any setback. It’s not some happy coincidence that they’ve gone 14-0 following a loss since the start of the 2020 postseason.
Brayden Point didn’t score a single goal in the Stanley Cup Final. The power play fell into a funk (13.3%). Killorn, the glue that holds the second line together, went down in Game 1. It didn’t matter. Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and a reanimated Tyler Johnson produced five goals and 12 points in the series.
Goaltending was once a liability. Vasilevskiy is now the undisputed cream of the crop at his position. Tight defense and physicality used to get under their skin. Now they’ll happily give you a taste of your own medicine.
Is there even a weakness here?
After finally exorcising its demons a year ago, this team has become…bulletproof.