Nick Suzuki got the kind of separation he couldn’t find in Game 1. He broke in on Andrei Vasilevskiy for a clean breakaway chance, deked to his backhand and …Vasilevskiy simply wouldn’t allow it. He thwarted the chance with a deft pokecheck. That moment early in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final was a microcosm of the night.
The Montreal Canadiens did everything right. They came out far more prepared than they were in Game 1. They badly outshot and outchanced the Tampa Bay Lightning. They showed a level of urgency and sacrifice that was previously missing, blocking more shots in the first period than they did in all of Game 1. But it still didn’t matter, because it was Vasilevskiy’s night.
For all the talk of Carey Price’s ability to steal games, it was Vasilevskiy asserting himself Wednesday night at Amalie Arena, one day after Marc-Andre Fleury won a Vezina Trophy that easily could’ve gone to Vasilevskiy. He turned aside 42 of 43 Montreal shots including eight of nine from Suzuki. Only once in 78 career playoff games has Vasilevskiy made more saves, excluding two games that went to overtime in which he made more.
“They came out really hot, and they’re a good team, so they were pushing tonight the whole game,” Vasilevskiy said. “I think we handled it pretty good. They beat us a few times, but in the end we did a good job. Our team came out big in the third, and it’s a great performance by everybody.”
The performance by Vasilevskiy upped his career playoff save percentage to .924. Among goalies with 75 or more career post-season games, only three have a higher SP. Game 2 was a statement for a star netminder that doesn’t get the same attention as his counterpart Price – despite the fact Vasilevskiy’s accomplishments by age 26 actually exceed Price’s. On top of the Stanley Cup ring, Vezina Trophy and four straight finishes as a finalist in the Vezina vote, Vasilevskiy has led the NHL in wins four consecutive seasons. Only four other goalies have ever done that, and they’re all Hall of Famers.
“The absolute competitive gamer that we know he is, night in night out, backbone of this team, can’t say enough good things about him,” said Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “We certainly want to make it a little bit easier of a night than we had to for him, but, man, he’s an absolute warrior and competitor, and obviously he’s the biggest piece of our win here tonight.”
Tampa opened the scoring in the second period with a seeing-eye shot from Anthony Cirelli that Price couldn’t track, and Montreal returned the favor a few minutes later on a similar play, with a Suzuki backhand beating a screened Vasilevskiy through the five-hole. But the Habs still didn’t hold a lead despite their massive territorial edge by the dying moments of the second period. And then it happened: the desperation play, with well-defended right winger Barclay Goodrow flinging a pass to well-defended left winger Blake Coleman, who sprawled out and batted the puck past Price with an incredible desperation dive.
“Just the timing was…epic,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who compared the goal to a strangely similar one Coleman scored during the 2020 post-season against the Boston Bruins. “Definitely a big lift going into the (third).”
It was a backbreaker for the Canadiens, who went to the dressing room trailing 2-1 after 40 minutes despite their domination, and they never seemed to recover.
Almost as if they knew they’d caught it a break, the Lightning played a much better third period, punctuated with a heady play by left winger Ondrej Palat in the waning minutes. When blueliner Joel Edmundson tried to reverse the puck behind Montreal’s net but took a bad angle, Palat stole the pass and one-timed it past Price, who wasn’t even looking. That dagger made it 3-1 Lightning, which held up as the final score.
What’s more deflating? Taking a pummelling in Game 1 or badly outplaying your opponent and still losing in Game 2? Whatever the answer, the Habs can’t dwell on it. They’ll have to take solace in the fact they were the far better team for the most part in Game 2, and they have a lot going for them in Game 3. Coach Dominique Ducharme will return behind the bench, having completed his COVID-19 quarantine. Montreal will have the last line change, meaning it can stick the Phillip Danault line on Palat, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. The Habs will also hope the magic of hosting their first Stanley Cup final Game in 28 years takes over on Friday at the Cell Centre. If only it could happen in front of more than 3,500 fans.