Through the first five games of the Tampa Bay-Montreal Second Round playoff series, however, the Lightning were not able to replicate that script. Game Six was a different story – more on that game in a bit. The Habs outshot the Lightning in all of those first five contests and, in terms of dictating play, enjoyed an advantage in five-on-five action. (In some of the five, the advantage was less pronounced than in others, but it was nevertheless still an advantage.) Why did this happen? And how were the Lightning still able to win three of those first five games?
This series, like the Round One series against Detroit, was a hard-fought battle. But there were different challenges for the Lightning. The key term in Round One was “structure”. The Red Wings played a tight, defensive system that effectively bottled up the Lightning during a number of games in the series. This structure became especially suffocating when the Red Wings got the lead. The word I’d use to describe the Montreal series is “urgency”. For much of the series, the Canadiens played with more urgency than the Lightning, which allowed Montreal to enjoy the aforementioned advantages.
This heightened urgency from the Habs isn’t anything new. The Lightning saw that first-hand last year while getting swept in the first round. Compared to how they looked in the regular season, the Canadiens brought their game to a different level in last year’s series – and they did it again this year through the first five games. They won puck battles and were quick to jump on loose pucks. They played on their toes. They played fast. Why weren’t the Lightning able to consistently match that level? I believe that the circumstances in how the series unfolded played a part.
In the first two games of the series, the “urgency gap” was less wide. Montreal, buoyed by its raucous home crowd, played with a lot of emotion and intensity early in Game One. The Lightning were coming off an emotional Game Seven win over Detroit less than 48 hours earlier. As Game One progressed, though, it became a fairly evenly-played game, which the Lightning won in Double OT. For Game Two, the Habs, having surrendered home ice advantage, again came out of the gates furiously and, unlike Game One, scored a first period goal. But Ben Bishop made several key saves to keep the deficit at one and then the Lightning rallied on the strength of their power play. After their fast start, the Habs hurt themselves with bad penalties. The Lightning cashed in for four power play goals, blowing the game open in the second period.
By the time the series shifted to Amalie Arena for Game Three, the Habs were in full-out desperation mode. That helps explain how they were able to control long stretches of action in that game. But thanks to Tyler Johnson’s buzzer-beating goal, the Lightning won their eighth straight against the Canadiens this year.
The talk from the Canadiens after the deflating Game Three loss was that they felt they were playing well, but just not getting rewarded. Facing elimination, they produced a terrific Game Four performance against a flat Lightning team. Game Five was closer, both in terms of flow of play and shots on goal, but again the Canadiens, with their backs against the wall, prevailed.
Which led us to Game Six. It was unlike any of the previous five. The Lightning outshot, outchanced and outscored the Canadiens. Once they grabbed a 1-0 lead late in the first period, they dominated the rest of the game. Up 3-0 after two periods, their defensive play in the third was especially impressive. Steven Stamkos said it was “as good a defensive period as we’ve had all year”. The biggest reason for why this game was different? The Lightning treated Game Six as if it were a Game Seven. They didn’t want to return to Montreal for an actual Game Seven and the urgency with which they played reflected it. Getting the lead also was crucial for the Bolts. The Habs, for the first time in the three elimination games, had to chase a deficit. That was a factor. But just as significantly, the Lightning found an urgency level that matched – or even exceeded – Montreal’s.
Lightning fans might question why it took until Game Six for this to occur. I believe it’s part of the maturation process for a collectively young group. Just as there were important lessons learned in last year’s loss to the Habs and the Round One win over Detroit, the Lightning discovered something else in this series. As Brendan Morrow stated during the series, sometimes you need to find a way to manufacture the desperation that your opponent feels. As I wrote in my “Extra Shift” piece after Game Five, the Lightning will be better in the long run for having gone through the Game Four and Game Five defeats.
So there’s no argument that the Lightning deserved to win Game Six. But what about this notion that the Canadiens deserved a better fate based on how the first five games went? Following the Lightning’s Game Six win, Montreal Head Coach Michel Therrien lamented that “we didn’t lose the series tonight. I thought we played really well in Game One, we deserved a better fate. Game Three, same thing. When you’re looking at the big picture, those are the types of games that when you play well, you should win those games. Eventually, it catches up with you.”
There’s an element of truth in what Therrien said. The Habs did some good things in Games One and Three and could have won both. Even in Game Two, his team carried play early on and, if not for Bishop, could have had a 2-0 or 3-0 lead. But the Lightning DID win those first three games and, with all due respect to P.K. Subban’s horseshoe comment about Bishop, the Bolts didn’t win them because they and their goalie were lucky.
As Bobby “The Chief” Taylor often says, “a goalie can be the ‘x’ factor”, meaning that a goalie can neutralize an opponent’s dangerous attack. No club knows this better than Montreal, which has arguably the best goalie in the world. A goalie can erase a teammate’s mistake with a great save. During Game One, Bishop made several terrific stops in the first two periods to keep the game scoreless. Perhaps that’s the stretch of Game One to which Therrien is referring when he spoke about his team deserving a better fate. But the Lightning generated several good chances themselves during the opening 40 minutes and Price also made some great saves for his side. Shots after two periods were 22-19 in favor of Montreal, hardly a lopsided advantage. Then, Tyler Johnson scored the game’s first goal at 2:34 of the third. From that point until Max Pacioretty’s tying goal at 14:47, the Lightning were in control of the game. Montreal didn’t have any dangerous chances during those 12 minutes and only mustered four shots on goal. And the Pacioretty shot was one that Bishop normally stops. We don’t know, if Bishop makes that save, how the final 5:13 unfolds, but I think there’s a good chance, based on how the third period was being played, the Lightning end up winning the game in regulation. And what about overtime? The Habs outshot the Lightning, 13-10, in the overtime sessions, but the Lightning had the better chances. One can argue that Nikita Kucherov’s breakaway goal in the first overtime could have counted. It didn’t, but the disallowed goal was a judgment call from the official. I know that Habs grumbled about the non off-side call that preceded the winning goal, but the linesman had nothing to do with the Canadiens turning the puck over in their own zone moments later when they had a chance to clear it.
So I don’t agree that the Habs deserved Game One. They could have won it, certainly, but did they deserve it? They did hit a few posts early, but they scored their lone goal on a shot that Bishop usually stops, they caught a break on the disallowed OT goal and they fumbled the puck away in their own end moments before the eventual winner.
Game Two, as I wrote earlier, could have been 2-0 or 3-0 in favor of the Habs in the first. But thanks to Bishop, the deficit was only 1-0 when Valtteri Filppula tied the score in the period’s final minute. The story from Game Two was Montreal’s undisciplined play – the Bolts enjoyed eight power play chances on the night. And along with Bishop’s first period performance, the power play was the biggest reason why the Lightning won. They scored four PPG on four consecutive shots. So while five-on-five shots ended up 25-16 in favor of Montreal, special teams were the difference in this game.
Following Game Three, Stamkos conceded that they “pulled a rabbit out of a hat”. That’s because, in terms of territorial play, the Habs dominated for long stretches. The Lightning weren’t happy with that part of the game. But the Lightning were quite sharp in the first period. They scored the game’s first goal and, like the Habs in Game Two, could have had more. Price made high-quality saves on J.T. Brown, Filppula and Ryan Callahan. The Lightning’s biggest problem for the middle part of Game Three was the fact that they didn’t have the puck. As detailed earlier, Montreal’s raised urgency had a lot to do with it. So the Lightning struggled to get shots on Price, going nearly 20 full minutes between shots. The Habs, on the other hand, attempted 30 shots in the second period, but 22 of those either missed the net or were blocked. So the Lightning, despite not having the puck, defended reasonably well in Game Three and limited Montreal’s scoring chances. The first half of the third period followed a similar script as the Habs continued to carry play. But after Brendan Gallagher tied the score at 10:03 of the third, the Lightning found their legs. The final 10 minutes were evenly played and the Lightning thoroughly dominated the last minute or so of regulation. That surge culminated in Johnson’s winning goal with 1.1 seconds left.
So like Game One, Montreal could have won Game Three. But did the Habs deserve Game Three? Therrien’s team did have the puck for most of a 30-minute stretch (beginning of second though Gallagher’s goal at 10:03 of the third). Again, they hit some posts. But I’m not sure that scoring chances were especially lopsided, a testament to how well the Bolts defended without the puck. And can we say a team deserves to win a game in which it makes some egregious mistakes, including several in the closing seconds? On the first Lightning goal, the Habs allowed Alex Killorn to complete a give-and-go sequence with Stamkos, walk uncontested into the low slot and whistle an open look past Price. On the Johnson winner, the Habs had the puck at center ice, but failed to get it deep. Then they lost coverage as the Lightning countered, which led to Johnson getting open at the top of the crease.
Ultimately, Montreal lost those first three games because when the Lightning had a chance to make a play (or plays), they made them. Despite being on the short end of the possession stick.
But that’s now how the Lightning want to play. They want to be the team we saw during the regular season. The team that dominated action in Game Six. They’ll try and make that their template when the Eastern Conference Final begins.