It was a game that made you wonder if the clock had finally struck midnight on this Cinderella run the Montreal Canadiens have been on. A game they dominated and lost 3-1 to fall down 2-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final.
It seemed ominous when a first-period tripping penalty for Jeff Petry coincided with the Canadiens’ public relations staff announcing the organization’s plea to Quebec health authorities to increase attendance at the Bell Centre from 3,500 fans to 10,500 was summarily rejected. It was ominous when Anthony Cirelli threw a hope shot through four bodies and beat Carey Price to open the scoring after the Lightning spent the first six minutes and 40 seconds of the second period watching the Canadiens buzz by them at full speed.
Oh, the bounces. They snuck up and bit the Canadiens—none of them harder than Artturi Lehkonen’s full-body ricochet off the boards after Mikhail Sergachev made a dangerous play from behind and drove him into them from three feet away.
Somehow, the one the Canadiens got smacked with after Nick Suzuki caught a great bounce—with a flipped backhand from 60 feet away that squirted right through Andrei Vasilevskiy to tie the game 1-1—knocked the glass slipper right off their foot. Tampa’s Barclay Goodrow made a great play to break into Montreal’s zone and shoveled the puck over to Blake Coleman, who dove and stabbed it into Price’s net with less than two seconds remaining in the second period.
It was Tampa’s seventh shot of the frame, its 13th of the game, and it was a dagger. The kind the Canadiens haven’t met in these playoffs to date.
“Playoffs are so close,” said Montreal’s Corey Perry, who’s won a Cup and is battling for another one for the fourth time in just 13 post-season appearances. “It’s a bounce here, a bounce there, a timely goal. Whatever it is, the (difference in) games (is) so minimal.
“It’s just one of those things (where) they get a break at the end of the second (at) .05 seconds, whatever it is. That’s a momentum swing.”
A botched reversal from Joel Edmundson to Petry landed right on Ondrej Palat’s stick with 3:18 to play in the third period for the goal that made it 3-1, and that was just spoiled mayonnaise on a you-know-what sandwich for the Canadiens.
“I thought we played a heck of a hockey game tonight,” said Perry after captain Shea Weber said he thought the Canadiens deserved better.
“But at the same time, it wasn’t enough, and we’ve got to find that extra gear.”
How the Canadiens do it is hard to fathom. Even when they beat the Lightning, which they did on multiple occasions in a game where Tampa coach Jon Cooper referred to his team’s performance as “unremarkable,” they still have to find a way to solve Vasilevskiy.
No one had a better chance to do that on Wednesday than Suzuki, who got lucky enough on one shot and was quite unlucky on half of his eight others. He had a full breakaway in the first and three more Grade-A chances as the night went on, with Vasilevskiy stuffing him on all of them.
The Canadiens generated another 34 shots on top of Suzuki’s and came up with nothing. It was like reaching for the rabbit in the hat and catching a glimpse of it scurrying around side-stage.
And this feels like a different form of adversity than everything else this team has faced and overcome in the lead up to this moment. They’ve handled the doubts, the injuries, bumps, bruises and COVID-19 locking away their double-vaccinated coach for four of the six games of the semifinal, but they haven’t had to deal with the kind of misfortunate they ran up against in Game 2 of this series.
Even going back to Game 1, in which the Canadiens were unquestionably the worst of the two teams and lost 5-1, they still had excellent looks at an early lead and saw the only real mistakes they made result in goals against.
But in Game 2, that dynamic took on an even uglier complexion. They reduced the mistakes to practically nil and still ended up having to fish the puck from their net two more times than Tampa did.
And that was after the Lightning committed enough mistakes to lose two games.
“I think these guys are very opportunistic and very lethal offensively if you do make mistakes in certain areas, and obviously they showed that again tonight,” said interim coach Luke Richardson. “I don’t think hockey is a mistake-free game. It’s too fast. It’s not football where you stop and start and draw up plays. So, you have to play as best you can playing north and (spend) as little time as possible in the (defensive) zone as you can against a team like Tampa.
“And I thought we did a better job tonight, so we’re going to continue to get better. We’re going to find our offence and we’re going to start scoring a few goals, and I think that will give us some confidence that way, and I think that means we have the puck more as well. I thought we did a better job tonight and we’ll continue to push forward and be better in Game 3.”
Call on a ghost or two at the Bell Centre, and it might even result in a Canadiens win. Because right now it feels like the magic’s going away at the least opportune time.