TAMPA, Fla. – The belief had seemingly been squeezed out of the Tampa Bay Times Forum before the final buzzer even sounded on Game 2.
So thorough was the Montreal Canadiens dominance here that a planned fan whiteout melted into large patches of empty blue seats in the late stages of Friday’s game. More than a few paying customers had to wonder if they’d seen the last of the Lightning in person with Montreal marching out of town with a 2-0 series lead.
However, there were cautionary voices to be found at both ends of the hall on this night. Not only did you have Lightning coach Jon Cooper delicately hinting that the Habs would encounter some different pressure and expectations once this series shifts to the Bell Centre, you also had Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban essentially echoing those sentiments.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re going to play the same game,” Subban said after Friday’s 4-1 victory. “We don’t need to change anything. Obviously, we know the building’s going to have a ton of energy, we know that they’ll be chanting the whole game and that they’ll be yelling and screaming, telling us to shoot on the power play every time we get it.
"We’ve just got to stick to our gameplan."
So far that has been the story of this series.
Montreal has looked like a team on a mission, one that won’t be deterred or deflated by anything that happens on the ice. After remaining patient during a 5-4 overtime victory in the opener – a game that was more lopsided than the score suggested – the Habs weathered an early storm on Friday and eventually sucked the life out of the Lightning.
It helped that they ended an 0-for-27 run on the power play with a David Desharnais deflection goal early in the second period and then saw Rene Bourque burst past Sami Salo and beat Anders Lindback to make it 2-0. You could see the confidence growing.
Once Carey Price robbed rookie Cedric Paquette later in the frame – the only five-bell save he was called on to make in Game 2 – the result was never really in doubt. Tampa wasn’t able to mount much of an offensive attack save for a late Teddy Purcell goal that ended Price’s shutout bid.
"If there’s one thing that I have to say that our team’s done well over the last two games it’s suffocating the middle of the ice and making it tough for them to come through the neutral zone," said Subban, who had two assists. "I know as a defenceman that likes to skate the puck, that likes to move it up the ice, it’s always tough when every time you look up you’re looking at three forwards and two defencemen every time. It’s not easy.
"We have to continue to do that."
This was not how it was supposed to go for a Tampa team that worked hard over 82 games to earn home ice advantage in this series. It was telling that the players held a post-game meeting to try and rally themselves. It won’t be easy.
The Lightning are facing a daunting task, especially with No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop (elbow) and top scorer Ondrej Palat (upper body) currently sidelined by injuries. On top of that, they are playing with an inexperienced roster that is three years younger on average than Montreal and might simply be in too deep.
This is the first significant test since Steven Stamkos assumed the captaincy from Marty St. Louis last month. The Tampa star had a fairly quiet night in Game 2 and vowed to be better.
"We’re not playing well," said Stamkos. "We’re not going to sugarcoat anything. We have a lot better than these first two games. It’s turnovers, it’s compete level, but we know what’s in here. We know we have this group.
"We’re going to man up and realize we have more to offer."
Perhaps the most intriguing decision facing Cooper is who to start in goal on Sunday night. During the third period, he replaced Lindback with 21-year-old Kristers Gudlevskis – the Latvian who nearly upset Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics – in a failed attempt to try and spark his team.
At the very least, Cooper will have to seriously ponder whether giving Gudlevskis his second career NHL start in Game 3 might produce the intended effect.
The Lightning coach projected his usual calm and cool demeanour while surveying where this series stands. Changing venues to the Bell Centre, the cathedral of hockey, is bound to change the dynamics at play, Cooper reasoned.
He clearly sees an opportunity for his team to plant a seed of doubt.
"I’m sure they’re tickled pink to go up 2-zip, but they’ve still got to win games," said Cooper. "We’re coming in fighting. We like the way we’ve played there. We like the ice, we like the rink, we like the atmosphere.
"If I was going to pick any rink we wanted to go to and play, we’ve enjoyed playing in Montreal."
That train of thought is not as naively hopeful as it may sound. Strangely, the Canadiens have lost the last three series that they’ve started by winning consecutive games on the road. In fact, six members of the current team were part of the 2011 squad that had it happen against Boston.
"Hey listen, I remember three years ago," said Subban. "I’m not pleased until the series is over."
Halfway there, but still a ways to go.