The Stanley Cup playoffs are famously unpredictable. The plucky Montreal Canadiens upset teams favored to beat them in three consecutive rounds to reach the 2020-21 final, after all. But sometimes, the team with the 18th-best record in the NHL visits the defending Stanley Cup champion… and things play out the way they’re actually supposed to on paper.
Game 1 between the Habs and Tampa Bay Lightning Monday at Amalie Arena simply wasn’t close. Cinderella turned back into the ole' pumpkin, and the champs proceeded to stomp that pumpkin into goo.
The 5-1 final score actually didn’t do justice to Tampa’s dominance in the game. The Habs’ lone goal came on a seeing-eye point shot from stay-at-home blueliner Ben Chiarot that pinballed off Anthony Cirelli and Ryan McDonagh. Given superstar Habs netminder Carey Price also denied a Steven Stamkos wrister at point-blank range and extended a pad to rob Tyler Johnson in the second, the score easily could’ve finished 7-0.
Playing in front of approximately 16,000 fans, their biggest crowd since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the Lightning set the tone quickly, pressuring a jittery Montreal team that turned over over the puck to set up the first three Tampa goals. First it was a burly blueliner Erik Cernak, beating Jeff Petry to the net 6:19 into the game for a perfect redirection. In the second period, it was center Yanni Gourde tipping a Blake Coleman shot after they and right winger Barclay Goodrow overwhelmed the Habs with their speed. Montreal got a spark late in the second period on Chiarot’s magic-bullet goal, but the Bolts snuffed it out quickly when Chiarot bobbled Kucherov’s centering attempt into the Habs' net at just 2:00 of the third. The Lightning displayed the killer instinct of a team that has been in the deep waters recently – and won. You could see hear it in star right winger Nikita Kucherov's voice after the game, in which he had two goals and three points and earned first-star status.
"We don't think about them," he said. "We have a system, we have the plan, and we stick to it."
And that cool closer's mentality was perhaps the biggest wakeup call for Montreal in Game 1. In the first three rounds, the Habs faced teams with everything to lose in the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights. Once Montreal got momentum in those series, it could make its opponents flinch. The Lightning, on the other hand, already know how to thrive when the stakes are highest, so the Canadiens couldn’t count on them to crack under pressure, not even after the late second-period goal.
The Habs’ forward group is deep but obviously lacked the star power of Tampa’s entering this series, and it showed up in Game 1, with the Canadiens’ top attackers being erased off the rush and their defensemen contributing seven of their 19 shots. Not only did the Lightning put on a defensive clinic, but coach Jon Cooper masterminded his line matching. So much for the hyped clash between elite shutdown center Phillip Danault and the Brayden Point line. Cooper, who had last change, fired that matchup into the sun, keeping Palat-Point-Kucherov away from the Danault line virtually all game, velcroing his top unit to Montreal’s dynamic but green second line of Tyler Toffoli, sophomore Nick Suzuki and rookie Cole Caufield. A great example of the wisdom that comes from experience: Cooper said after the game that his main reason for keeping his top trio away from the Danault line was that the teams hadn't played each other all year. He wanted to observe the Danault line in action first.
And the game plan worked to perfection. The Point line beat the Suzuki line for three 5-on-5 goals.
"At the end of the day, Pointer's line with 'Kuch' and 'Pally,' they're elite for a reason," Stamkos said. "They've done this, and they've been in this position before and had all that success last year, and it's just carried into this post-season. They're a huge reason why we are where we are, and whether it's the first round or the Stanley Cup final, you go back and look at past experiences, and those are the guys that are leading the charge."
The Habs didn’t exactly look fearful against their juggernaut opponent. They were more than willing to mix it up with a a big, mean Tampa team and delivered 58 hits to Tampa’s 57 But even if the Canadiens were physically up to the challenge, none more than right winger Josh Anderson, there’s no denying Game 1 looked like a serious mismatch. The Habs managed a measly five shots on Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first period and were outshot and outchanced decisively in the first two periods when the score was still close. Simply not good enough. Tampa even ended Montreal's historic penalty-killing streak at 14 games and 32 kills when Stamkos one-timed home his team's fifth goal with 1:10 left on the clock.
The good news for Montreal, of course, is that it’s one game. The Canadiens lost three of their first four games in Round 1 against Toronto and dropped Game 1 to Vegas. Showing resiliency when no one expects them to win has been the Habs’ defining characteristic this post-season. The question now is whether a team as talented and battle-tested as Tampa will let the Habs off the mat. The Bolts know how to close games and also have the maturity to understand it won't always be as easy as it was Monday.
"I'll make one thing clear: this is the National Hockey League, with the best players in the world," Cooper said. "You can be beat on any night by any team. The players are that good. Consistency is the key. You have your plan, you stick with it, and you consistently rock it. And if you do that, we like our chances in games. But it doesn't guarantee results. We've found something that works for us. It doesn't mean you're going to win every single night, but it's sticking to that process."
Opponents have underestimated the Habs all post-season, but perhaps the Habs actually underestimated the step up in difficulty when facing the Lightning. Nothing surprises the champs. They were the more prepared team in Game 1.