Nikita Kucherov fired a slot rocket past Carey Price 2:06 into double OT to lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 2-1 Game 1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night.
Here are three thoughts in the wake of this grueling opener.
1. Second time's the charm
It was fitting that Kucherov bagged the winner after he was denied an apparent goal 2:55 into the first OT.
On that play, the speedy winger blew by a pair of defenders just inside the Montreal blue line and broke in alone on Price. His initial wrister was denied, but as he drove the net, slamming on his brakes just outside the crease, the puck crossed the line. It appeared at first that Price's own momentum led him to drag the puck across the goal line, but the replay showed that Kucherov's stick pitchforked Price's right pad, driving him and the puck into the net. The officials correctly ruled no-goal on the ice, although the initial call easily could have gone Tampa's way.
The eventual winner was not without controversy, either. Canadiens coach Michel Therrien was livid after the game, insisting that Valtteri Filppula was offside on the play leading up to the goal. There may have been a mistake by the linesman on the play, but he should be asking himself why he had his fourth line and third D pair on the ice at the same time in double OT. That's the kind of tactical error a coach simply can't make at that point in the game.
In the end the goal stood and the Bolts managed to steal one in Montreal without putting together their best game. They allowed the Canadiens to control possession. They never were able to make anything of their speed advantage. The power play failed to convert on three chances and now is mired in an 0-for-22 skid. And Steven Stamkos saw his playoff scoreless streak extend to 11 games as he was largely held in check by P.K. Subban and Lars Eller.
Still, they found a way. Tyler Johnson—who else?–was there to score his league-leading seventh goal of the postseason on a nifty deflection 2:34 into the third. It was a nice bit of timing by Johnson, who slid into the slot a moment before Matt Carle unloaded from the point and out-muscled Tom Gilbert for position down low.
Ben Bishop delivered another wildly uneven game, much like his Game 7 performance against the Wings. There were moments of sheer brilliance, like the two-pad stack glove save that robbed Tomas Plekanec on a late two-on-one opportunity. There were stretches when he dangerously mishandled the puck or struggled to move side-to-side. And there was the spirit-crushing goal he allowed to Max Pacioretty late in the third, a simple wrister that went directly into his catching glove and then popped out as though it were hot buttered before tumbling behind him into the net.
But in the end he made 43 stops on Montreal 44 shots. As nervewracking as it was, he got the job done.
2. For the Canadiens, now what?
Not to be overly simplistic, but for the Canadiens to take this series they have to win four games. That's worth noting because at this point it's starting to feel like even one victory over Tampa Bay might be a bridge too far.
This makes six straight losses at the hands of the Lightning dating back to the regular season, and if the Habs were ever going to snap out of this slump, it should have been Friday night. The Bolts came into this contest having played a physically and emotionally draining Game 7 against Detroit just two nights earlier. Their fatigue was apparent in the first 15 minutes of the game and reappeared again as the contest dragged into overtime. And that led to chances. There were two posts pinged early on, and Dale Weise sent a glorious opportunity from the slot wide just moments before Kucherov ended it.
They got a superlative effort from Subban, whose tireless legs must be Tesla-charged. Price offered a typically well composed performance, making 33 stops. The Plekanec line had its way with the Lightning defense, leading the Habs to that wide edge in possession they held for most of the game. They did an excellent job of minimizing the impact of Tampa's team speed, slowing them to a crawl in the neutral zone and forcing them to dump pucks in instead of trying to create off the rush.
And then there was the goal. Hey, if they can't win a game in which Bishop coughed up a quail like he did tonight, maybe it's just not in the cards for the Canadiens.
Not that they're out of it after Game 1, but this loss stings badly. This one was theirs to win. Now they've given up home ice advantage and need to win four of six from a team that has their number.
And now Sunday's Game 2 looks like a must-win.
3. Searching for offense
If the rest of the series plays out like this one—and no reason to think it won't—goal scoring will be at a premium. Both teams kept their coaches happy by maintaining a strict defensive structure in their own zone, taking away the middle of the ice and combining to block 61 shots. With open ice at a premium, neither side generated more than half a dozen quality chances.
While there wasn't much breathing room out there, both sides were guilty of maybe respecting the other team's goalie a bit too much. There were too many instances of players looking for the extra pass or trying to thread the needle with the result being a missed opportunity.
There's so much skill on both teams that it can be tough to dumb it down. But both teams need to make adjustments to their offense after this sludgefest.
The key for both sides moving forward will be simplifying their attacks. Taking the shots that are given. Aiming at the pillows to create rebounds. Battling for the prime ice to be ready for the loose change. Put it in the hands of the garbagemen and see what they can make of it.