They have been controlled, contained and precise.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are ruthlessly counter-punching their way toward another Stanley Cup.
Every Montreal Canadiens mistake seems to end up in their net and they’ve just seen their margin for error reduced to zero by falling into an 0-3 hole in the Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning simply look too strong, too unshakeable, too in control.
They hoisted the Cup inside the Edmonton bubble on Sept. 28 and just 280 days later they’ll have a chance to do it again at the Bell Centre when Game 4 is played Monday night.
“Last year, the feeling you have it’s like the first day of school. That’s kind of how that whole year was,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “This year, it almost feels like it’s the last day of school. We don’t know what our team is going to look like next year, if it’ll be together again.
“There’s some crazy circumstances that had to happen for this team to stay together and I know these guys understand that and they know that and they’re well aware of what they can cement to themselves if they can somehow get one more win.
“It’s been unbelievable to be a part of.”
Perhaps that’s come with a laser-like focus. A team that lost a Cup Final plus two Game 7’s in the Eastern Conference Final knows it won’t be this close to the top forever. The opportunities are dwindling.
The story of why this group is one win short of joining the Pittsburgh Penguins as the NHL’s only repeat champions in the last two decades runs deeper than talent. They’ve got superstars, yes, but they’ve unlocked something that allows them to make sure incomplete performances like the one they had in Game 2 of this series aren’t repeated.
On Friday, they marched into a city bubbling over with enthusiasm and anticipation, and pounced on their opponent.
They turned a Canadiens icing and puck-over-the-glass penalty into a 2-0 lead before the game was four minutes old.
Then they scored two more times in the first 3:33 of the second period on the way to a comfortable 6-3 victory.
They haven’t allowed Montreal to even have a lead yet in this series. The cumulative score is 13-5.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has outperformed Carey Price, Montreal has found no answers for Nikita Kucherov and even players like Jan Rutta and Tyler Johnson are allowing the Lightning to get the better end of the depth battle.
“I know how fun it was last year when we won, so you want to do that again,” said Johnson, who scored twice. “Don’t know how many chances you’re going to get. Any time you get this close, you really feel it. I think winning last year makes you even want to win it more.
“I think everyone kind of feels that way, and we’re really excited.”
At this stage, their victory feels inevitable.
The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team in NHL history to erase a 3-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final. And the Lightning haven’t lost consecutive playoff games since 2019, let alone dropped four in a row.
Kucherov is basically assured of becoming the first player since Mario Lemieux in 1991 and 1992 to lead the playoffs in scoring for two straight years. He’s up to 32 points after a goal and an assist Friday.
It was his December hip surgery, and subsequent placement on long-term injured reserve, that allowed general manager Julien BriseBois to run it back with only a couple roster losses. That’s what Cooper was referencing when he mentioned roster uncertainty after last year’s six-game Cup Final win over the Dallas Stars.
Stepping back, the success they’re enjoying now is the culmination of a seven-year build where they’ve won more and scored more than any other NHL team. They endured tough losses along the way, none worse than a first-round sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019 that prompted a change in approach.
“Let’s be honest: We changed the makeup of our team,” said Cooper. “We did that, we got a little grittier and then the quote-unquote skill guys, they changed their games as well to a winning formula, a winning way to play, sometimes it’s not the flashiest way. And when they started getting rewarded for it they didn’t cheat and say ‘OK, well we’ve done that, that’s fine, let’s go back to the way it was.’ No.
“The individual accolades got pushed to the side. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it’s the truth and they all just pull in the same direction. It’s amazing to listen on the bench for instance like four years ago compared to today in what is being said and how everybody speaks up.”
That set the stage for what we saw Friday night. They were better prepared to handle the moment and take care of business than the Canadiens.
A couple turnovers became goals scored in transition. Their only power play resulted in a big Victor Hedman strike.
And they didn’t ever allow Montreal to get much traction or life.
The Lightning were in control while taking complete control of another championship series. A special moment now awaits a special group.
“It’s been marvellous to watch. And watch this team grow,” said Cooper. “It took us some time, but it’s starting to pay some dividends.”