Lightning on brink of repeat after cruising past Canadiens in Game 3 of Stanley Cup final
Tampa's Tyler Johnson strikes twice in comfortable Game 3 win
The Canadiens' dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup a 25th time to close out an improbable playoff run in a season like no other is on life support.
And the Tampa Bay Lightning are now one victory from sipping out of hockey's holy grail for the second time in just over 10 months.
Tyler Johnson scored twice, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman had a goal and an assist each, and Tampa defeated Montreal 6-3 on Friday to grab a 3-0 stranglehold in the final.
Jan Rutta and Blake Coleman, into an empty net, also scored for the Lightning, while Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 32 shots. Ondrej Palat added two assists. After missing the entire regular season because of hip surgery, Kucherov's two points gives him a league-best 32 in these playoffs.
"Everybody's buying in," he said. "When everybody's doing their job it makes it easier."
WATCH | Lightning take 3-0 stranglehold in series with Canadiens:
The Lightning, who won the franchise's second title inside last season's playoff bubble necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, can clinch another Cup on Monday at the Bell Centre.
"It's awesome any time you can help the team," Johnson said. "We're trying to create something special."
Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki and Corey Perry replied for the underdog Canadiens. Carey Price made 24 saves with head coach Dominique Ducharme back behind Montreal's bench for the first time in two weeks following a positive COVID-19 test.
"We made too many mistakes and they make you pay," Ducharme said. "They make you pay cash on those mistakes.
"We're aware of it. We just need to execute better."
Price: 'Not good enough'
He's far from the only reason Montreal finds itself down 0-3, but Price has an .835 save percentage in the final after putting up an .934 mark through the first three rounds.
"I can definitely play better," said the former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner. "Not good enough."
Only four NHL teams have come back from 3-0 deficits to win best-of-seven series: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs — in the final — along with the 1975 New York Islanders, 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and 2014 Los Angeles Kings.
Montreal is looking to become the fifth, but faces the steepest of mountains against a battle-tested adversary unwilling to give an inch.
"We don't have a choice," Price, whose club fought back from 3-1 down against Toronto in the first round, said when asked why he believes the Canadiens can get off the mat. "We've overcome adversity all season long, and our backs are obviously against the wall.
"We'll have to start bringing our best."
Bolts jump on Habs early
Once again without winger Alex Killorn because of a lower-body injury suffered in Game 1, the Lightning started to build that early lead at 1:52 when Rutta scored his second goal of the playoffs on a shot through traffic following an icing and Montreal forward Josh Anderson's inability to get the puck out of his zone.
Canadiens winger Eric Staal then fired a clearing attempt over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty that handed Tampa's lethal power play its first opportunity.
Hedman promptly made it 2-0 at 3:27 when he waited for a screen and blasted home his second off the glove of a surprisingly shaky Price.
Ducharme called timeout to calm his team, but his goaltender had to swipe a bouncing puck out of his crease once action resumed as the visitors continued to push.
The Canadiens eventually showed life, with rookie sniper Cole Caufield firing off the base of Vasilevskiy's right post.
WATCH | Habs play Game 3 in front of home fans:
Then with Brendan Gallagher driving the net, Danault's shot struck the same post, but this time also found twine for his first at 11:16.
The underdog Canadiens, 18th in the overall standings following the league's 56-game pandemic schedule, probably felt good about themselves heading to the intermission, but again somehow lacked the requisite energy to start the second.
Lightning defenceman Erik Cernak caught Montreal on a bad line change, sending Palat in on a 2-on-0 with Kucherov, who scored his eighth at 1:40 for a 3-1 lead.
Vasilevskiy, who stopped 42 shots in Game 2 and 16 more in Friday's opening 20 minutes, didn't have much to do in the period, and it might have showed when Suzuki's effort from a sharp angle beat him between the pads for his seventh with 1:56 left to give the Canadiens life.
Montreal finally started a period on time in the third, but couldn't find a way past Vasilevskiy early. Johnson scored his second of the night with 4:41 left to make it 5-2 and Perry replied with his fourth 39 seconds later.
WATCH | Coleman buzzer-beater gives Lightning edge in Game 2:
But Coleman iced it with his third into an empty net to move Tampa within one victory of another title thanks to a combined 14-5 scoreline through nine periods.
"We're in a hole, it's pretty obvious," Gallagher said. "But we can promise one thing: we won't give up."
The first NHL regular-season or playoff contest ever held in July, the Canadiens hosted their first Cup final game since June 9, 1993, when they won the franchise's 24th — and Canada's last — Cup over Wayne Gretzky's Los Angeles Kings at the Montreal Forum.
Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus in the hours before Game 3 of the Canadiens' semifinal matchup with Vegas.
Habs' failed bid to increase capacity
His team went a surprising 3-1 the rest of the way in that series — the Canadiens also stunned Toronto and Winnipeg in the first two rounds — with assistant coach Luke Richardson calling the shots to secure Montreal's first trip to the final in 28 years.
The Canadiens wanted to increase attendance at the Bell Centre for the final from 3,500 to 10,500 inside the 21,302-seat venue, but Quebec's government denied the request.
Ducharme called the decision "very disappointing" prior to Game 3, while also pointing to the massive crowds that have congregated outside the arena during an unlikely playoff run.
"As much as it could have been a way to reward those who have gotten their two doses, it could have been an incentive to get even more people vaccinated," he said in French following Friday's morning skate. "It could have been a way to reward our fans, the people who have gone through 14 or 15 months of isolation, to have the chance to participate in an event like this.
WATCH | Stéphan Lebeau sees similarities between Habs, 1993 team:
The price for the cheapest pair of tickets on one resale website an hour before puck drop stood at just under $3,200. The Lightning and Canadiens played in front of 15,911 and 17,166 fans, respectively, for Games 1 and 2 in Tampa.
"We'll have 3,500 [people] inside and probably 25,000 outside who are going to be shoulder-to-shoulder," Ducharme added.
"It's hard to see the logic."
After his team's effort in Game 3, and Tampa's grinding resolve, it's even harder to see Montreal securing that 25th Cup this summer.