For all the talk of teams underestimating the Montreal Canadiens throughout the 2021 post-season, it was those underdog Canadiens looking overwhelmed by the moment in their 5-1 Game 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning to open the Stanley Cup final. The Habs fell behind early, struggled to generate scoring chances in the first half of the game and had major problems turning over the puck. As assistant coach Luke Richardson said Tuesday before Montreal’s off-day practice, his team experienced some jitters on the big stage.
So what now? The Habs obviously aren’t panicking yet given they rallied in Round 1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Round 3 against the Vegas Golden Knights after looking overmatched early in those series. But it’s at least a bit concerning when your opponent is the defending Stanley Cup champion and as unflappable as any team in the league under pressure. The Canadiens can’t count on Tampa to come out flat and gift them a win in Game 2.
The most glaring problem to address, brought up by media in about half the questions during Tuesday’s Zoom availability, was the line matching from Tampa coach Jon Cooper. He took Habs shutdown center Phillip Danault out of the equation by playing Tampa’s top line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov against Montreal’s second line of Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. The impact was twofold: not only did the Lightning’s big line torch the Habs’ second line for three 5-on-5 goals, but the imbalance also rendered the Habs' most dynamic scoring line punchless.
“They move the puck well,” Suzuki said Tuesday. “They’ve been playing together for a while, so they make little plays to each other in tight. All of them can make plays, shoot the puck well, have a lot of speed. I thought we handled them pretty well when we were getting hemmed in a little bit and had some shifts where we hemmed them in. We just have to do a better job of cleaning up turnovers, limit their time and space and try to keep them off the scoresheet.”
It’s a problem Suzuki and his linemates must solve, because there’s little reason for Cooper to change his strategy in Game 2. He’ll likely keep his top line in the same matchup until Toffoli, Suzuki and Caufield show they’re able to handle it. The shutdown line of Artturi Lehkonen, Danault and Brendan Gallagher will have to make its mark against the Lightning’s other lines.
“It’s up to the coach,” Danault said. “It seems like (Cooper's) getting Point’s line away from our line. We don’t control that. We’ve got to play the game and be confident in our game whoever we play against and create some offense as well.”
It doesn’t appear we’ll get a kneejerk reaction and changing of the lines from Richardson. Not after one game. His group has come this far, and Toffoli, Suzuki and Caufield have been a big reason why, so the hope is that they adjust.
“I don’t think the solutions are the actual line combinations,” Richardson said. “It’s how we played last night. It was probably our worst game in the last five games. Puck management was our difficulty, and I don’t necessarily think it was the combination of personnel and who was with who.“
If the Habs can contain Tampa's big line and cut back on the turnovers, which led to Tampa’s first three goals in Game 1, that still won’t be enough. Montreal has to be far more dangerous at the other end of the ice. A look at the 5-on-5 shot-attempt heat map from Game 1, courtesy of naturalstattrick.com, shoes how much more effective the Lightning were at generating chances in the slot:
Tampa’s first three goals came off a redirection, a redirection and an own-goal redirection. Traffic in front of Montreal's net made Carey Price’s job more difficult. It was the opposite for Andrei Vasilevskiy in the Tampa net. Life was pretty easy in Game 1. The Habs’ forwards generated just 11 shots at 5-on-5 and got badly outmuscled by Tampa’s big, heavy D-corps in front of the net.
So it’s a matter of finding the drive to put Tampa back on its heels in Game 2. Any dressing room with Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber and Corey Perry in it shouldn’t have trouble re-lighting that match.
“We have to continue on the game plan, the veteran guys especially really support that, and that’s what is the driving force this time of year," Richardson said. "That message goes a long way when your veteran guys are looking at you eye to eye on the bench saying, ‘We’ve got to do this’ and ‘We’ve got to execute this’ rather than the coach just rambling on time after time behind the bench. I think it gets old. So it’s a combination of us providing the message but the veteran leadership following through with that. And definitely I think we’ll see our execution much better next game.”
So the Habs have taken the Lightning’s best punch, and it was quite the haymaker. Now it’s a matter of whether the Habs still have the counter-punching ability they’ve shown time and again in the playoffs. They hadn’t faced the defending champs since they won last year. Perhaps it took a game against them to understand the step up in competition. Not that the Canadiens will concede that.
“Nothing really is surprising," Suzuki said. “We got to watch them a ton through the playoffs last year and through these playoffs. They’re definitely as advertised. They’re a good team. Move the puck real well, skate real well. We just got a taste of what they bring to the table, and we’ve just got to match that intensity, match that compete, and we can definitely play with these guys.”