The Montreal Canadiens arrive in this Stanley Cup Final feeling like a team of destiny. But to complete the job, they’re going to have to derail the pursuit of history by the NHL’s gold-standard franchise.
What makes the Tampa Bay Lightning such a formidable opponent isn’t that they’ve won more games, scored more goals and experienced more big playoff moments than anybody else these last seven years.
It’s that they’ve become the team who likes to beat you at your own game along the way. And after polishing off the determined New York Islanders with a performance straight out of Barry Trotz’s playbook -- a tense 1-0 victory in Game 7 -- the Lightning are hungry to add another championship to the one they claimed 10 months ago inside the Edmonton bubble.
“To do it two years in a row, multiple times, you’re talking about now your team is special,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “And years down the road they say ‘Well, that Tampa team during some time was a hell of a team’ and I think you can really put a stamp on that if you win another one.”
The Lightning are like a fireball pitcher that added a deceptive curve to the repertoire and became nearly unhittable. During one stretch of the Stanley Cup semifinal series with the Islanders they exploded for 12 straight goals and yet when everything was on the line Friday they bent the game in their favour.
This was clinical. They dominated 5-on-5 play and stayed patient until Yanni Gourde’s breakthrough goal while short-handed. And in the final period they allowed just seven shots to get through to Andrei Vasilevskiy, throwing bodies in front of 10 more attempts to seal the victory.
“That was just a textbook Game 7,” said Vasilevskiy.
It sets up a Cup Final that should reward whichever team can stick with it longest, starting with Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Monday night.
The Canadiens caught lightning in a bottle this spring by becoming the absolute best version of themselves. They’ve stifled the most dangerous scorers in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas while scaling heights not seen in la belle province since 1993.
You won’t get any freebies against the Habs. They are elite at limiting chances off the rush and have a pretty significant insurance policy in Carey Price when opponents establish momentum on the cycle.
The Canadiens have proven to be pretty opportunistic offensively -- 20-year-old Cole Caufield scored four times in the six-game series against the Golden Knights -- and they haven’t allowed a power-play goal-against since midway through the first round, which will be tough to maintain against Tampa’s 37.7-per cent juggernauts.
“They’re going to get the best team that they’ve played against so far and we’re going to get the best team that we’ve played against so far,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos.
“It’s going to be a tough grinding series. If anything we can carry over from this [Islanders] series, it’s the style of play in terms of the defensive aspect that we’re going to be going up against -- an amazing goaltender who’s on his game right now. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, and that’s where we go back to all the times that we’ve been in this situation.
“And this core now, there’s guys that this is their third final. We just go back on past experiences and go from there.”
The other major development from Friday’s victory was that playoff scoring leader Nikita Kucherov managed to play. He said there was never any doubt he’d be in the lineup after getting knocked out of Game 6 on the first shift by a Scott Mayfield cross-check, but Cooper described the situation as “dicey.”
There were all kinds of ways the Lightning could have fallen short in this series. They squandered a 2-0 lead with a chance to finish things off Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum, bringing a little more chance into play.
Gourde acknowledged feeling some nerves before Game 7. He’s one of the shining examples of why this organization has climbed the heights it has -- an undrafted former ECHLer signed in free agency who became a productive middle-of-the-lineup contributor for the Lightning -- and he was a difference-maker with the season on the line.
Gourde put the only puck behind Semyon Varlamov after slipping off the bench undetected during a line change and burying an Anthony Cirelli feed.
“Scoring a goal in Game 7 is a really amazing moment,” he said.
“For me, it’s big to play against Montreal. This is the team I watched growing up. I’m excited to play a Stanley Cup Final against the Canadiens, but we have to stay calm and manage our emotions well.”
They do it better than most.
It helps having a goalie as calm as Vasilevskiy, who incredibly has shutouts in the team’s last four series-clinching efforts. He was only asked to make 18 saves in this Game 7. These aren’t the same Lightning that used to try and race opponents to five goals.
“They can beat you with a grind game and a defensive game,” said Trotz. “I think in the earlier years they weren’t going to beat you with a defensive game. They would get frustrated if they didn’t outscore you and to me they’ve got a really good balance.
“Sometimes the labels aren’t really accurate: Tampa Bay is known for total offence, but they’re very good defensively.”
Just like the Canadiens.
The biggest discernible difference in a series that will pit two Atlantic Division teams against one another is experience. The Lightning have won a Cup, lost a Cup and reached two other Game 7’s in the conference finals in just the last seven years alone. The Canadiens have plenty of accomplished veterans on the roster, but they’re currently charting their first lunar mission together.
Asked what he learned about his group these last few weeks, Cooper replied: “Never to doubt ‘em.”
“It took a lot to get here,” he said.
They’re saying that on both sides of this once-in-a-lifetime Final.
May the best team win.