MONTREAL — As if a 3-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final wasn’t enough, the Montreal Canadiens spotted the Tampa Bay Lightning a four-minute power play with 1:01 remaining in the third period and the score tied 2-2 in Game 4.
There’s adversity and then there’s whatever you’d call the situation the Canadiens found themselves in, with one of their top penalty killers biting his nails in the penalty box as the world’s best special-teams unit came out guns loaded. Captain Shea Weber’s double minor for high-sticking Ondrej Palat was a death sentence.
But the Canadiens pushed the game to overtime, went to their dressing room to talk over how to officially earn clemency, came out and killed the rest of the penalty and then got a goal from Josh Anderson that sent them packing back to Tampa Bay.
It was a much more fitting end for this group than the one they were staring down. This group, which has been through so many trials, faced down their biggest test yet and pulled out a life-saving pass.
“There wasn’t a way we were going to lose a game like that with a penalty to our captain,” Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said. “We were convinced we’d find a way to kill that penalty. It’s a play that happens so quick. A play that happened, unfortunately, at the wrong time.
“It shows the character of our team again, and there was no question we were going to kill that penalty for our captain.”
It took Carey Price making four saves in overtime to guarantee it.
The Canadiens wouldn’t have had a chance without their best player responding to a self-critique following Game 3’s 6-3 loss, in which Price allowed five goals to bring his save percentage for the series down to .835.
“I can definitely play better,” he said. “It’s just not good enough so far.”
It certainly wasn’t up to the ridiculous standard Price had set in helping the Canadiens defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights, until Monday’s game began with Tampa registering the first eight shots on net.
In a series that’s seen the Canadiens pay for virtually every mistake they’ve made, none of the many they made in the first eight minutes of the game cost them anything — and that was thanks to Price.
The Canadiens knew he’d be his best self in the most critical game of the year. As did Ducharme, who didn’t feel Price needed a pick-me-up after he essentially put the blame on himself for a loss his entire team earned.
“Just a tap on the pads,” Ducharme said. “Pricey’s got experience, he’s a competitor, and we wanted to be better in front of him. He said what he said, and he answered the bell tonight.”
All of the Canadiens did, even if nerves got in their way for long stretches of the game.
Anderson got them their first lead of the series in the 16th minute of the first period before he ended the game by collecting a rebound off Cole Caufield’s play to the net. And 21-year-old Alexander Romanov became the youngest defenceman in franchise history to score a goal in the Stanley Cup Final.
Goals for Tampa’s Barclay Goodrow and Pat Maroon tipped the stress meter into the red. Weber’s penalty put everyone at the Bell Centre into shock, except for his teammates.
“We just keep talking (about how) nothing has been easy for us all year and it wasn’t going to start this series,” said Brendan Gallagher. “We’re definitely aware of the challenge, but every little bit of adversity we’ve faced this year we’ve handled well.
“We got through tonight, we can’t really afford to enjoy it for too long. Move onto the next one and do the same thing. We’ve just kind of accepted the fact that it’s never going to be easy here.”
It might have been hardest on Ducharme, who watched the first two games of this series from his couch, serving the final days of his two-week quarantine following a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. He had just under 72 hours between Games 3 and 4 to contemplate what he’d do to help the Canadiens survive, and he came up with some of his boldest decisions of the season.
Without them, the Cup would’ve been paraded around the ice at the Bell Centre and the Lightning would’ve become just the second team in NHL history to beat the Canadiens for it on a Montreal ice surface.
Ducharme scratched one of his leading scorers in Jesperi Kotkaniemi to insert Jake Evans between Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen. It was a move that paid dividends, with all three players also helping to kill off that Weber penalty — and four others in the game.
And the coach did it all with the trust of his players.
“We have depth in this team all year long,” Anderson said. “When you’re down 3-0 in the series, you’re just looking to make adjustments and make the team better. And I thought we had a pretty good game tonight. Obviously, there was some turnovers in the first period and everything like that. But you know, we all stuck together and believed in each other.”
Without that, the Canadiens would’ve been cleaning out their lockers and booking tee times come Tuesday.
Instead, they’re flying into Hurricane Elsa, which is set to touch down in Tampa shortly after they arrive. The perfect setting for the challenge they still face to prevent the Lightning from winning their second consecutive Cup.
What’s another storm for this group.
“We don’t want the Cup in the hands of the Lightning at all,” said Ducharme. “We’ll go to Tampa, come back and play a last game at the Bell Centre.”
The Canadiens will have to save their season twice more to punch their ticket back to Amalie Arena for Game 7.