Keys to victory for Canadiens in critical Stanley Cup Final Game 3

Watch as Craig Simpson and Chris Cuthbert discuss how turnovers cost the Canadiens a chance to get back into Game 2 against the Lightning.

Game 2 was there for the taking.

After a scoreless first period, the Montreal Canadiens played their best 20 minutes of the Stanley Cup Final in the middle frame. However, thanks to a couple of costly mistakes, the Canadiens headed to the dressing room down 2-1 after two periods anyway. Another backbreaking turnover in the third period and it was curtains for the Canadiens.

Now, Montreal finds itself in the unenviable position of having to win four of its next five games against the defending champs who haven’t lost consecutive playoff games since 2019. Without question, the Canadiens put forth a better effort in Game 2, but costly turnovers proved to be the story once again as Montreal heads home down 2-1 in the series.

As we get set for Game 3, here are three keys for Montreal to get back in its series against Tampa Bay.

Unforced Errors

Six of the Lightning’s eight goals in the Stanley Cup Final have come as a result of Canadiens turnovers. Three in Game 1 and three more in Game 2. Tampa Bay is going to generate enough scoring chances on its own, so gifting the Lightning additional opportunities to score is a surefire way to end up on the losing end of a game. The good news for the Canadiens is they are not turning the puck over any more than they had been in their three previous playoff series. In fact, their turnover rate is lower in the Stanley Cup Final than it was in Rounds 1, 2 and 3.

Montreal has turned the puck over on 16.6 per cent of its total possessions against Tampa Bay at even strength. That is down from 17.5 per cent through its first three playoff rounds. The problem is two-fold. One, too many of these turnovers have come at critical times in the game. Two, the Lightning are more capable of making teams pay for their mistakes than most teams in the NHL.

While each Stanley Cup Final game has produced three Lightning goals as the result of Canadiens turnovers, the bad news for Montreal is the mistakes have gotten worse, not better. In Game 1, on two of the three turnover goals against, Montreal was in fine defensive position but fell victim to unfortunate bounces.

On Yanni Gourde’s goal, the Canadiens were in good defensive position, defending a two-on-two rush. A blocked shot landed right on the stick of Blake Coleman, whose follow-up shot hit Gourde and went into the net.

The Lightning’s 3-1 goal by Nikita Kucherov was a similar story. Tampa Bay entered the Canadiens zone outnumbered, on a three-on-four rush. Kucherov threw the puck at the net, off Ben Chiarot and in.

Yes, these goals could have been prevented by not turning the puck over in the first place, but at the same time, Montreal didn’t leave itself in poor defensive position. The same could not be said on two of the Canadiens' costly turnovers in Game 2.

With the score tied at one, Montreal had possession of the puck with 10 seconds left in the second period. All the Canadiens had to do was hold on to the puck, flip it out or chip it through the neutral zone to head to the dressing room tied. Instead, Shea Weber moved the puck to Phillip Danault as the Canadiens attempted one more rush up the ice. Tampa Bay forced a neutral zone turnover, Chiarot was too aggressive at his defensive blue line, and Coleman dove to deflect the puck past Carey Price with less than one second left in the period.

Any hope of the Canadiens tying the game late in the third period vanished when Joel Edmundson reversed the puck behind his net to…Ondrej Palat, who one-timed the puck past Price to give the Lightning a 3-1 lead.

The turnovers leading to Coleman and Palat’s goals in Game 2 were inexplicable mental mistakes that came at crucial times in the game. Turnovers happen in every game and, more often than not, if the team committing the error is in good defensive position afterwards it won’t lead to a goal against.

However, Montreal left itself in terrible position on two of its three costly turnovers in Game 2. It’s not the number of turnovers that have cost the Canadiens in this series, it’s the quality of them, especially in their last game. Captain obvious take: Montreal will need to manage the puck better on home ice.

Solving Andrei Vasilevskiy

The Canadiens have scored twice in two games of the Cup Final and neither of their goals will end up on highlight reels anytime soon.

In Game 1, Chiarot’s double-doink point shot ricocheted past Vasilevskiy and into the net. In Game 2, Nick Suzuki’s long-distance backhand somehow snuck through Vasilevskiy. After finishing Game 1 with 19 shots on goal, the Canadiens emphasized throwing pucks at the net and got 43 shots in Game 2. However, not nearly enough of these shots tested Vasilevskiy. Montreal nearly doubled Tampa Bay in shots on goal, but the Lightning won the expected goal battle due to the significant difference in quality.

Full marks to Vasilevskiy, who played a near-perfect game. Stopping 40-plus shots in a playoff game is a remarkable feat regardless of shot quality. The point is, the Canadiens are going to have trouble scoring the number of goals likely required to beat Tampa Bay if they don’t improve the quality of their shots. The Lightning defence deserves a lot of credit for limiting the number of dangerous scoring chances Vasilevskiy faced in Game 2.

Home-Ice Advantage

At long last, last change for the Canadiens. Not having last change wasn’t much of an issue for Montreal in Game 2, thanks to a brilliant performance from Suzuki. After struggling to contain Brayden Point and his linemates in Game 1, Suzuki’s line fared much better in its head-to-head minutes against Point’s line in Game 2.

This is an encouraging sign for the Canadiens, who will have much more control over line match-ups in the next two games. Danault, Montreal’s celebrated showdown centre, will likely see a lot of Point in Games 3 and 4 after barely facing him in Tampa Bay. Through two games, Danault has only been on the ice for 3:47 against Point at five-on-five. In those minutes, Montreal has outshot Tampa Bay 3-1 and 3-0 from the slot. Neither team has scored.

With Dominique Ducharme expected back behind the bench for the Canadiens in Game 3, he will have the luxury of dictating this match-up as he pleases, while also possessing the knowledge that Suzuki’s line showed it can handle minutes against the Point line.

While Montreal failed to win a game in Tampa Bay, both games were competitive. At the start of each third period, Montreal trailed by only one goal. The Canadiens were in both games until costly turnovers caught up to them.

For the Canadiens to be able to claw their way back in this series they will firstly have to avoid the mental mistake turnovers that leave them in poor defensive position to recover. They'll also have to create higher quality shots against arguably the best goalie in the world. A barrage of perimeter shots might produce one, maybe two, fortuitous goals but that likely won’t be enough offence to beat the Lightning.

And finally, the Canadiens will need Danault and Suzuki to eat big minutes against Tampa Bay’s top-six and at least draw even against them at 5-on-5.

The Canadiens will likely need to win the next two games at home to have a chance of capturing their 25th Stanley Cup. Montreal will look to build off an improved effort in Game 2 and will need to play a near-perfect game Friday night to get back in this series.

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