The way the Montreal Canadiens lost game three, the way the bounces have gone in this series, there was a great sense of foreboding heading into game four on the second half of a back-to-back. I took in the game at a pub with some friends, one which had been jam-packed for the rest of the playoffs, yet was filled with naught but oxygen on a beautiful, sunny day in Montreal.
As much as some would have you believe that Montreal is hockey obsessed, Canadiens fans are a fickle lot, and not many believed on Thursday evening, until they did.
Just over two and a half minutes into the game, after Max Pacioretty won a race for the puck deep in the Tampa Bay Lightnings' zone, he whipped it up to P.K. Subban in the high slot. Subban faked that he would shoot the puck on net, and pulled three Lightning players into a line in order to block his shot, which allowed Andrei Markov to sneak in on the left side, where Subban found him with a pass that Markov deftly took off his skates, to his stick, and deposited past Ben Bishop, off the post, and in.
It may not have seemed like much, but it was the first time since game two against Ottawa that the Canadiens scored a goal on a passing play that wasn't around the perimeter, and it immediately energized the entire team.
What followed wasn't just the Lightning getting blown out in their own barn, it was an annihilation. Even when the Canadiens were up by five goals, Tampa Bay couldn't generate anything at even strength. The only times the Lightning were able to get on the board were two gifted powerplays, with Steven Stamkos getting the superstar treatment on one, and an embarrassing dive by Braydon Coburn making up the other.
After the game Michel Therrien played it cool and claimed that the Canadiens didn't change anything, they just stuck to their game plan and finally broke through, but this is an obvious untruth to anyone who has been following this series in detail. For the first time these entire playoffs, the Canadiens were attack the middle of the ice with authority, bringing speed into the zone and executing passing plays that forced Bishop, and later Andrei Vasilevskiy, to move laterally.
Whether this was a coaching adjustment is debatable, as it could have been the players taking the onus on themselves to change things up, as the entire team had a private dinner after losing game three. Whoever decided to make the changes, the results spoke for themselves.
Max Pacioretty's post game quote about the first goal was telling, saying that instead of just throwing the puck at the net, Subban made a play, and doesn't that sound like the opposite of what a certain someone has been preaching for two seasons?
Hope springs eternal
The more I thought about the game, as the Canadiens capitalized again and again on both great plays, like Alex Galchenyuk's feed to Jeff Petry, and bounces finally going their way, like David Desharnais' slap shot goal, or combinations of both, like Lars Eller's burst of speed and heavy slap shot setting up Brandon Prust for his first playoff goal as a Hab, the more it seemed like this series could actually turn on Tampa Bay.
If not for a lapse in concentration with seconds on the clock in game three, this series would likely be heading back to Montreal tied. Even if it were, the Canadiens likely still deserve to be better off than that. Through four games, the Canadiens hold a staggering 58% control of shot attempts at even strength when adjusted for score. With the Canadiens finally producing some quality to go along with their quantity, and bounces beginning to shift in their favour, a reverse sweep isn't out of the question, especially with Carey Price holding the fort.
Price by the way, remains at the top of the NHL in even strength save percentage, with the Lightning's shooting percentage run sticking almost exclusively to the powerplay. If the Canadiens remain disciplined, this series is far from over.
To the Canadiens I say this:
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Make us believe.