It’s been just under a week since the Montreal Canadiens stunned the Vegas Golden Knights to clinch a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. It felt a lot like a fever dream, one that many fans believed couldn’t possibly be real, but it most certainly is. The Habs came back to upset Toronto, dismantled the Jets without breaking a sweat, and then went blow for blow with the best the West had to offer.
Now it was their old divisional rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning, standing in their way of a 25th Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay came into Game 1 fresh off a win over the Islanders in Game 7 of their series, and presented Montreal’s toughest test to date.
The Habs had options for the game, with the return of Jake Evans to full health and also the clearance of Joel Armia to play after a Covid scare on Sunday. It was Evans who ended up in the open fourth-line spot while Armia was a scratch, and the rest of the lineup remained the same as the clinching game against Vegas.
The two sides traded chances in the opening minutes, with Cole Caufield creating a handful of opportunities on his own. The Canadiens were hanging with Tampa quite well even after a pair of icings, but it only took one split-second for the Lightning to grab the series’s opening goal. Brayden Point fired a pass up to Ondrej Palat, who broke into the Montreal zone, firing a low pass that a charging Erik Cernak got his stick on, deflecting it over Carey Price’s glove and putting Tampa in the lead early.
One thing that wasn’t missing in the early going was the physical play as Brendan Gallagher traded barbs with everyone in a blue jersey. His irritation eventually drew a call as Barclay Goodrow was sent to the box for a cross-check. Montreal got a few looks on the power play, but the Tampa penalty kill stifled any follow-up chances and got the crucial kill.
Then it was Montreal’s turn for an ill-timed penalty as Ben Chiarot took a seat for attempting to cross-check Nikita Kucherov in front of the net. It provided Tampa Bay with a chance to put the Habs in a deep hole right at the end of the first period. While their man advantage flung the puck around with no fear, Montreal was able to fend it off, exiting the first period trailing by a goal, and with a penalty to kill at the start of the second.
The second period saw a much stronger start for the Canadiens, they killed off the Tampa power play, then turned the play back up ice. In an attempt to make up for his penalty, Chiarot fired a shot through a screen, clanging his chance off the inside of the post and out. As much as the Canadiens pushed though, Tampa pushed back, and with one small error on the part of Gallagher, the Bolts’ lead doubled.
Gallagher tried to throw a pass across the offensive blue line, bit it was picked off, starting a rush the other way. It ended with Blake Coleman firing a shot through a Yanni Gourde screen that Gourde got just enough of to make it 2-0 for the home side.
The Lightning continued to take over the flow of play, hemming Montreal in deep for several minutes in a row and threatening to put the Habs out of the game. As he has done all playoffs, Price picked up the Canadiens to keep their hopes in Game 1 alive with some massive saves, perhaps none bigger than a pad save on Tyler Johnson.
In the dying minutes of the second period, Montreal finally found a bit of life, even if it came off a fortuitous bounce. Jesperi Kotkaniemi worked his way through the offensive zone, refusing to yield the puck, and he eventually got it to Chiarot along the blue line. Chiarot wound up and fired his shot, which then hit one Tampa skate, then went off Ryan McDonagh and into the net to cut Tampa’s lead in half.
The Habs were able to see out the final moments after that, heading into the second intermission trailing by a goal but having found some of their swagger.
Chiarot’s luck didn’t last long to start the third period, as his error handed the Lightning their two-goal lead back almost immediately. A harmless shot that looked like it was going wide ended up being swatted by Chiarot, but he managed only to send it fluttering in the air instead of away from the net with his stick. Nikita Kucherov got credit for the goal as he tossed the puck in the general vicinity of the net before Chiarot knocked it in.
That lead grew to three late in the third as Tampa Bay got an offensive-zone faceoff, and drew up a play similar to what Vegas had used to great effect. The Lightning won the draw and Kucherov worked around a standing pick to get into open space, where he wired a shot into the top corner to make it a 4-1 game.
The game unraveled from there as the Canadiens grew frustrated and scrums kicked off after nearly every whistle. That included Mikhail Sergachev escaping a penalty for spiking Gallagher’s head into the ice, causing the Habs forward to bleed heavily as he exited the game. Then it was Kotkaniemi heading to the box after he retaliated to a butt end from Erik Cernak. As the Habs killed that penalty, Joel Edmundson was sent to the box as well for throwing a shot back at Gourde.
Montreal killed off Kotkaniemi’s minor, but wasn’t able to keep their impressive streak going beyond that as Tampa buried a fifth goal for good measure to put an emphatic point on the end of Game 1.
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Tampa. It’s likely that Joel Armia will draw back into the Canadiens lineup as the team looks to bounce back like they did against Vegas last round.