So it had come down to this. The Montreal Canadiens were on their last life against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. Every game had been a showcase of the Lightning’s depth and coaching quality, that even when the Canadiens wrested control of a game from them, they were able to take it right back. The defending Cup champions had a 3-0 series lead, leaving the Habs with no room for error in what many expected was going to be the last game of the NHL season.
Dominique Ducharme did make a few lineup changes, with Jesperi Kotkaniemi being made a healthy scratch while Jake Evans took his spot in the lineup. On defence the duo of Alexander Romanov and Brett Kulak drew in for Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson. Tyler Toffoli moved up to the top line, Josh Anderson moved to the wing of Nick Suzuki, and Artturi Lehkonen was bumped down to the third line.
For a team playing with their feet to the fire, the Canadiens were not the ones playing with any sense of urgency in the opening half of the first period. Tampa Bay was all over the Habs, not allowing them any space to generate an offensive push. The Lightning had no issues gaining the zone and peppering Carey Price with shots as they jumped out to an 8-0 shot lead before Montreal finally put a puck on Andrei Vasilevskiy.
It felt like an almost inevitability that Tampa Bay was going to break through as they swarmed Montreal over and over. Yet, amazingly, it was the Habs who struck the back of the net first thanks to the yet another outstanding Nick Suzuki pass.
Suzuki played the puck to Cole Caufield, who immediately fed it back to Suzuki as he worked below the goal line. Suzuki flicked a puck back to the front of the net where Caufield caught a piece of it, but it was Josh Anderson who roofed the chance to give Montreal a lead late in the first period.
The game started to unravel a bit as Jake Evans slowed up Brayden Point, and in return Point punched Evans in the face three times, and the officials sent both to the box on coincidental minors. That four-on-four situation soon became a four-on-three as Joel Edmundson was whistled for a slash in the neutral zone. The Lightning power play looked as dangerous as ever, but Montreal finally got a bit of luck as Point exited the box and rang his shot off the crossbar and away to keep Montreal’s lead intact.
A kerfuffle kicked off as the period ended, as Yanni Gourde and Edmundson exchanged shoves, eventually spilling into a full team intervention complete with Josh Anderson tracking down Pat Maroon, and Brendan Gallagher naturally getting himself in the middle of it all as well.
The teams started at four-on-four in the second period as Pat Maroon and Edmundson sat for their roles in the previous scrum. With the extra space, the Canadiens were able to control the flow of play but weren’t able to find a second goal.
They did get a golden opportunity as Point caught Lehkonen up high with his stick. The power play practice on Sunday clearly paid off as both units were all over the Lightning, but some strong stops from Vasilevskiy kept the Habs’ lead at one as they managed to get the kill. As Point exited the box he looked like he was clear to chase down a puck, but Shea Weber swiftly closed the gap on him, slamming him along the boards and preventing the scoring chance from developing.
Montreal got into some penalty trouble as the period wore on. First was Corey Perry grabbing a fistful of jersey behind the play. Luckily for the veteran winger, Montreal’s penalty kill stonewalled the man advantage. The special-teams unit didn’t have long to rest though as Joel Armia was caught flatfooted and Mathieu Joseph drew the tripping call.
Tampa’s attack was far more focused as the Canadiens honed in on Point in the offensive zone, which left a perfect shooting lane for Victor Hedman to fire through. His shot caught the very edge of Carey Price’s blocker, and rang iron once more. Hedman wasn’t deterred however, and his next massive shot ended up blasting off Point’s knee as he was cutting through the slot. That led to a stoppage in play that allowed the Habs to regroup with a neutral-zone faceoff and kill off the penalty once again.
As has been the case all series, one little turnover led to a tying goal for the Lightning. Jeff Petry’s clearing attempt was picked off by Ryan McDonagh, and as the puck was passed back through the Montreal zone it was McDonagh throwing the final pass back into the slot for Barclay Goodrow to finish off and tie the game 1-1.
With their Stanley Cup dreams on the line, the Canadiens had at least 20 more minutes to save their season and get the lead back.
The third period started much like the first, all Tampa as the Lightning stymied the Canadiens’ offensive attempts at every turn. The pressure eventually led to a pileup around Price, which in turn led to three Bolts and three Habs taking a very long seat in the penalty box.
With Tampa’s entire third line in the box and Montreal down two of their top four defenders it seemed all but certain that the Lightning were going to strike next. However, it was the unlikeliest of players stepping up for the Canadiens. Alexander Romanov, who had been a healthy scratch all series, took a pass from Evans and rifled a shot by Vasilevskiy to give the Canadiens the lead back once again.
History repeated itself though, as the lead wasn’t destined to last, even as Suzuki put in heroic efforts on multiple shifts. One failed dump in by Tyler Toffoli instantly turned into a two-on-one for Tampa Bay, where Mathieu Joseph fed Maroon, who tied the game late in the third period.
The Canadiens were clearly holding on as best they could, hoping to find some kind of weak link to steal the game late in the third, but a Weber double-minor for high-sticking wiped out that chance and put Tampa is prime position to win on the power play. Montreal escaped the first of the four minutes, but faced the daunting task of killing the remaining three in overtime.
Tampa threatened, over and over again, as their near-historic power play hammered the Canadiens, and yet Montreal kept refusing to go to the mat. It looked like more short-handed magic was brewing as Phillip Danault and Suzuki got a two-on-one rush, but a save from Vasilevskiy denied them.
However, because this was a game about repeating history, it was the young star Caufield helping to create another huge goal. Anderson raced after a puck he had poked free, beating Jan Rutta to it in the Tampa Bay zone, and poked it to the front of the net. Caufield was again in the right spot, holding up and letting Ryan McDonagh fly past him, and creating a rebound off Vasilevskiy’s pads. Anderson circled back, and swatted the rebound to the back of the net to force Game 5 back in Tampa.
With Tropical Storm Elsa bearing down on the state of Florida, Game 5 is still set to go on Wednesday night, when the Habs will again try to stave of elimination and keep their Cup dream alive.