MONTREAL — It wasn’t that the Montreal Canadiens came unhinged so much as it was that they came unglued. They were disconnected, discombobulated and disjointed — everything they hadn’t been in their run to the Stanley Cup Final — and it put them in the unenviable position of having to do something only one team has done before in National Hockey League history.
Coming back from down 3-0 in the last series of the playoffs has proven to be virtually impossible since the format shifted to a best-of-seven in 1917. Doing it against this formidable Tampa Bay Lightning team, which is now on the verge of becoming the first club to win back-to-back championships since the Pittsburgh Penguins did in 2016 and ’17 and the third team to do it since the Canadiens won their last Cup, would require divine intervention.
On Friday — in front of 3,500 fans who blinked bleu, blanc et rouge and screamed themselves green at the Bell Centre — the Canadiens dug themselves a hole they couldn’t climb out of. Two goals allowed in the first 3:27 of first period, and another two in the first 3:33 of the second, were samples of their trademark cohesion unravelling. And two more goals against in the third period to lose Game 3 by a score of 6-3 may very well have left them in disrepair.
“We had bad execution,” said coach Dominique Ducharme, who had returned after contracting COVID-19 and serving a two-week quarantine to preside over a team that appeared nothing like the one he was cast aside from seven games before.
“Every time we made a mistake, we paid cash.”
This was Ducharme’s slogan as the Canadiens fumbled over themselves down the arduous final stretch of the regular season, rendering themselves the lowest-ranked team participating in these playoffs. Over 25 games in 44 nights, with several key players injured, he just couldn’t coax them into offering the consistent, unified performances they needed, and he ended up spitting out those words more times than he probably ever wished.
That Ducharme hadn’t had to speak them again at any point after Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs, when the Canadiens began a 7-0 run to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs and sweep the Winnipeg Jets without ever surrendering a lead, said much about how far they had come. He helped them achieve a split against the Golden Knights in Vegas, and then settled in on his couch to watch them win four of five games and ascend to the Final for the first time in 28 years.
But we can only imagine how often that old saying crept back into his head as the Lightning picked his team apart in Game 1 of this series to win 4-1. He must have felt like the Canadiens emptied their bank account in Game 2 — a game they dominated but lost because of just a couple of errors that enabled the Lightning to pull off a heist.
Game 3 might have been Montreal’s most charitable effort of the playoffs, though.
It started with a mix-up in defensive zone coverage, which produced a failed clearing attempt, a bad reaction to that failed clear and a goal for Jan Rutta just 2:52 in the first period.
Eric Staal, somewhat unprovoked, dumped the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty on the very next shift, and Victor Hedman made him take hockey’s greatest shame shimmy when he beat a screened Carey Price to make it 2-0.
Bad turnovers gave way to rush goals for Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson to start the second, and Johnson and Blake Coleman added daggers in the third.
When Canadiens captain Shea Weber was asked after the game which goal broke his team, his answer may as well have been “All of them.”
"I don't know, to be honest,” Weber actually said. “It was an uphill battle all night chasing the game, but can't put it on one."
The Canadiens had done so well to avoid such outcomes on the way here. They were so in tune with each other, so surgical in their precision, so well-oiled in their game plan of starting off assertively and authoritatively, capturing the lead, remaining disciplined in their structure and relying on Price when their opposition pushed back.
But he hasn’t been able to make the difference here. Price, who gave up just 35 goals in the first 17 games of these playoffs, has allowed 13 to get by him in three games against the Lightning.
“I can definitely play better,” he said. “It’s just not good enough so far.”
Not for him. Not for anyone on the Canadiens really.
They pushed with goals from Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki and Corey Perry, but couldn’t piece things back together.
How do they solve it now?
“You just have to correct the mistakes,” said Brendan Gallagher. “We believe we can play against these guys. We've believed it since Game 1. We just haven't shown it enough — not for a full 60 minutes. We've had sparks where everything we've talked about, everything we've done has worked, but there's just been mistakes in our game and we're playing too good of a hockey team. They're deep everywhere. They're going to make you pay.
“We're in a hole, it’s pretty obvious. But we can promise one thing: We won't give up. I know this group, we will try to win the fourth game and we will go from there.”
The Canadiens will have more than 48 hours to think about it ahead of Monday’s contest. Almost three full days, in fact, to recapture what appears to have been lost.