It was the most notable deviation from the plan that got the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final, and it cost them Game 1 against their most formidable opponent of these playoffs.
Artturi Lehkonen said, “You need to beat the best to be the best,” before this series against the Tampa Bay Lightning got underway, and his Canadiens won’t have a chance to do it if they commit the same mistakes they made over the 60 minutes played in this 5-1 loss in Tampa on Monday.
The mistakes interim head coach Luke Richardson said earlier on Monday would be the most important ones to avoid.
“I think puck management is going to be on our table, No. 1,” Richardson started. “They are an offensive team, but they do play hard and tight goal-scoring games. And they probably worked at it and got better at it over the last few years. You don’t win the Stanley Cup without doing that. So, I think the thing for us is that, managing those pucks in certain danger zones so we don’t turn it over and put ourselves in outnumbered situations, because that’s where they feed off teams and do their best work offensively and counter on you quick and outnumber you so they can strike quick.”
When Cole Caufield tried to hit Jeff Petry with a pass across the offensive blue line in the seventh minute of the first period, he fell right into the trap. Brayden Point transitioned the play the other way for Erik Cernak to tip Ondrej Palat’s perfect pass for his first goal of the playoffs.
You could actually hear Brendan Gallagher yell in frustration after he made the same error in the second period by trying to force a pass through Barclay Goodrow, which deflected to Jan Rutta and started the counterattack Yanni Gourde capitalized on to make it 2-0 Tampa.
The game was less than 16 minutes old, and the only egregious errors the Canadiens had made had resulted in goals against. They were trying to create offence on both plays, but they got burned trying to do it at the expense of the structure that proved so effective in propelling them past the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights — teams who counterpunch exceptionally well, but not quite as lethally as this Lightning team does.
“I think it was a couple of the plays that we made laterally, we were standing still,” said Richardson. “You’ve got to have that motion and our speed going on the rush and laying pucks through triangles if we’re doing that to another player into the middle of the ice, where we have motion going forward and that puck is going forward. We can’t be standing still and making it a lateral puck, because they’re tracking hard and they have good gaps and they have great eye-hand coordination with their skill and their sticks. So, it led to turnovers…
“If we can’t make a play with speed on the rush, we’ve gotta put pucks in behind those Ds and go to work there.”
For the portions of the game the Canadiens did that, they were effective, with Ben Chiarot’s first-ever playoff goal in the 18th minute of the second period the product of good work down low from Josh Anderson, Paul Byron and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
But with the margins razor-thin and the stakes as high as they can get, executing the plan part of the time doesn’t get the job done. It rarely does even under normal circumstances.
The Canadiens weren’t good enough in this game. Not even close.
“We had our game for a short period of time,” Chiarot said, “but we’ll look to put a full game together here in Game 2.”
The Lightning had their game all the way through this first one, churning well-oiled after dispatching the New York Islanders in seven games of a hard-fought semifinal that followed series wins over the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. By the time the clock ran out on the third period, they had the thundersticks clapping at full volume in Amalie Arena, with two goals flying off playoff-leading point-man Nikita Kucherov’s stick and a power-play marker for Steven Stamkos that snapped a streak of 32 consecutive penalties killed for the Canadiens.
Behind the bench, Jon Cooper guided the reigning champs masterfully, deploying Kucherov’s line with Palat and Brayden Point against the Tyler Toffoli-Nick Suzuki-Caufield combination and keeping them away from shutdown mavens Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher and Lehkonen, who spent most their night chasing around Goodrow, Gourde and Blake Coleman.
“I liked the way things were going for us,” he said, “and so we stuck with it.”
Adjusting to that will be a greater challenge than anything the Canadiens must focus on for Game 2.
“There’s not much to do other than maybe (catching them on) icings,” said Richardson. “But, we’ll try and change the order at times during the game just to shake things up.
“But on the road, you’ve got to compete in the playoffs no matter who you’re against, and just limit our mistakes and we’ll be fine.”
That’s what the game comes down to when the rest of it is a tight-wire fencing match.
The Canadiens were out-shot 26-19, marginally out-chanced, matched with 57 hits to their 58 and tied in the faceoff circle, but they beat themselves as much as Tampa beat them.
They did it by committing the type of errors they knew to avoid against the reigning Cup champs, the type they managed to avoid at all costs to get to this stage.
“The positive is we didn’t play our best game,” said Richardson. “We can get better. I think they’re always a talented team that plays well and definitely creates off mistakes that you make. So, by us playing better and managing the puck better and maybe limiting those mistakes and creating a little bit more ourselves, I think we have a good way to go up, and that’s going to be the positive out of it.”