The Montreal Canadiens found themselves in a peculiar spot after Game 2 in Tampa. They had lost, despite being the far better team for most of the game, and less than 10 seconds of collective mental errors was their undoing as they lost 3-1. That left the team in a spot they hadn’t been in since Round 1, trailing by two games. The good news is they were back on home ice for a crucial Game 3.
The team was bolstered by the return of head coach Dominique Ducharme behind the bench, a welcome sight even with the admirable work Luke Richardson and Alex Burrows did in his absence. The lineup remained the same, a justifiable response to Game 2 considering how well the team played, outside of literal seconds of mistakes. The Tampa Bay Lightning were still without Alex Killorn as he nursed his injured foot, and therefore also iced the same lineup as last game.
Montreal, with almost certainly more than 3,500 fans, came out strong. And then with one fanned shot by Jon Merrill the momentum changed entirely. With a wide-open lane to the net, Merrill failed to get a shot off, then iced the puck trying to spring Josh Anderson. Off that icing call, Jan Rutta fired a shot through a screen in front of Carey Price, and suddenly it was a 1-0 game.
Eric Staal aided the Canadiens’ woes by flipping a puck out of play, and drawing the delay of game penalty. Tampa Bay wasted no time making them pay for that, as a miscommunication between Phillip Danault and Artturi Lehkonen left Victor Hedman wide open and he lasered a shot by Price to double the lead.
A timeout was called immediately by Ducharme as he tried to rally his troops to get them back in the game. It was tough sledding as the Lightning attacked relentlessly shift after shift, but the Canadiens were able to weather an absolute onslaught for a few minutes as they found their skating legs once again.
It was the top line finally making its offensive presence felt as it carved through the Tampa Bay defence through the neutral zone. Shea Weber sprung Danault, who bolted into the offensive zone, and while he was looking for a charging Brendan Gallagher, Danault opted for a shot instead. It was the right choice too as Danault wired his shot off the post and in behind Andrei Vasilevskiy to cut the lead in half.
Tampa Bay looked like they might challenge for offside, but did not after a long look on the bench.
The goal from Danault continued to feed the legs of the Habs as they pushed the Lightning back time and time again while creating a ton of scoring chances for themselves. An interference penalty on Mikhail Sergachev provided Montreal with a massive opportunity to flip the script from the opening three minutes.
It wasn’t quite what the Canadiens needed as they weren’t able to solve Vasilevskiy a second time before the period ended. Yet despite a terrible start, Montreal led in shots, and was still very much alive as the two sides headed into the intermission.
Instead, the Canadiens came out in period two, mentally collapsed, and allowed Tampa Bay to all but seal the game in the opening four minutes. A bad line change allowed Erik Cernak to spring the Bolts on a breakaway that Nikita Kucherov finished with ease. Then another turnover resulted in another odd-man rush where Mathieu Joseph was able to corral his own rebound and feed Tyler Johnson, who made it a 4-1 game and took every bit of life right out of the Bell Centre.
With a three-goal lead, Tampa Bay had no issues smothering any attack the Habs drew up, and it seemed like the goal difference was going to widen. However, Nick Suzuki was determined to not let the Canadiens go quietly and added another stunning goal to his playoff CV this season. He picked up a bump-pass from Jeff Petry and tore off toward the offensive zone with a head of steam. Suzuki gained the zone with ease and fired a low shot that fooled Vasilevskiy and cut the lead down to two goals as the sides headed into the second intermission.
Needing the biggest third period of their season, the Canadiens were held in neutral as Tampa Bay continued to dominate the puck in all three zones, not allowing the Habs any sort of chance to create offence. That was all Tampa needed to do, as a bad turnover by Erik Gustafsson turned into a rush for Tyler Johnson, who slotted his own rebound by Carey Price and pushed the lead back to three goals.
The Habs decided that was the time to wake up, and found a way to cut that lead back down to two as Corey Perry channeled his 2007 self. He collected the puck and worked along the goal line, choosing the perfect angle before roofing his shot right over Vasilevskiy.
With Carey Price on the bench, the Canadiens were looking for a miracle to claw back into the game. As it’s been all series, one small turnover immediately ended up in the back of their net to make it a 6-3 game and put the Canadiens aspirations of a Stanley Cup on life support.
There’s an extra day off for the two teams due to the Fourth of July on Sunday in the United States. Someone on the team will need to channel Bill Pullman in Independence Day before Game 4 and get some kind of rise from this team to avoid a sweep on home ice.
It’s not over until the final horn sounds, so it’s not impossible to make a comeback. The Habs this post-season have made a habit of making the insane happen time and time again.