TAMPA, Fla. — Just when the Montreal Canadiens found another gear to show they can hang with the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, Blake Coleman singlehandedly kept the series from being tied.
Coleman scored a one-armed, diving buzzer-beater and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was the best player on the ice in making a playoff career-high 42 saves to put the Lightning up two games to none in the final with a 3-1 victory Wednesday night.
The Canadiens outshot the Lightning 43-23 and dominated long stretches of play, but they head home for Games 3 and 4 in Montreal needing to win at least one to avoid being swept by an opponent that can win many different ways.
It was more Montreal's style of play to give up a ton of shots, rely on goalie Carey Price to bail them out and buckle down with any kind of lead. Days after coach Jon Cooper said, "Part of our success has been trying not to rely on Vasilevskiy,'' they did just that in Game 2 of the final, and it worked.
Chants of "Va-sy! Va-sy!'' from the crowd of 17,166 echoed through Amalie Arena after the Vezina Trophy runner-up made one difficult save after another and finished with a . No player got a bigger roar during pregame introductions, and he was the focus all night with the Canadiens flinging the puck at him from all angles in a much better performance than the series opener.
"It's no secret he's the reason we were still in this game,'' Coleman said about Vasilevskiy. "(Then) we made the big plays when it mattered.''
But the Lightning showed again why they're the champs and favorites to repeat by taking blow after blow and responding. Missing fourth-leading scorer Alex Killorn because of an injury from Game 1 and with defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and forwards Tyler Johnson and Ross Colton wincing in obvious pain, Tampa Bay managed to beat Price three times on goals by Anthony Cirelli, Coleman and Ondrej Palat despite a major shot discrepancy.
Coleman's goal made all of that a moot point. With the clock running down at the end of the second, Barclay Goodrow put the puck around Montreal defenseman Ben Chiarot and sent the puck over on a rush to Coleman, who fought off Phillip Danault to bat the puck past Price and put the Lightning up 2-1 at the end of one of their worst periods of the playoffs.
Turnovers, lost puck battles and other mistakes added up — but not to a loss for the Lightning because of the dominant play of Vasilevskiy, who was perfect except for another fluky bounce goal when Nick Suzuki's shot pinballed in midway through the second.
Suzuki tied it for Montreal after Anthony Cirelli put the Lightning on the board a few minutes earlier. Cirelli's seemingly harmless point shot found its way through traffic and beat Price on just the Lightning's sixth shot of the night.
When Palat scored to make it 3-1 with 4:18 left on the Lightning's 21st shot fans jeered, "Ca-rey! Carey!'' at Price, and the Lightning improved to 13-2 this postseason when leading at the second intermission.
Mathieu Joseph replaced Killorn in Tampa Bay's lineup, skating 6:23 in his first game since May 20. That was back in the first round when the Lightning beat the cross-state rival Florida Panthers.
The Lightning were not the only team on the ice to have some attrition of injuries add up. After getting key penalty killer Joel Armia back for Game 2, the Canadiens were without forward Artturi Lehkonen for much of the second after he went into the boards hard on a hit from Sergachev. Lehkonen returned for the third period.