Observations and notes from Game 3 of a Stanley Cup Final that probably isn’t going much longer …
▪ Tampa Bay’s 6-3 win on Friday night saw a team that is playing $18 million over the salary cap crushing a team that finished 18th in the regular season. The ghosts of the Montreal Forum arrived for the first Cup Final game at the Bell Centre, but by the end of the night they were some of the loudest fans there.
The recipe: Two Lightning goals in the first 3:27 of the first. Two more in the first 3:33 of the second. Suffocate the Canadiens in the third, score a couple more for good measure. Good luck.
▪ Tampa is a Monday night win away from back-to-back Cup banners, and this is becoming one of the most lopsided Finals in history.
The Bolts haven’t trailed. The aggregate score in the series is 14-5. It’s the largest differential through three games since the 1997 Red Wings routed the Flyers, 14-5, en route to the first of two consecutive Cup Final sweeps.
▪ There’s always a way to shoehorn the local team in, so here: The team that opened up the largest goal gap through three games was the 1970 Bruins. They went plus-12 on the Blues (16-4 aggregate). The largest goal differential over a full Cup Final? Bruins 23, Canucks 8, in 2011.
(Cue a flood of warm memories.)
▪ You’d have to go back 39 years to find a team that scored more goals in the first three games of a Final: the 1982 Islanders (15). Since then, three teams — these Lightning, the 1997 Red Wings, and 1996 Avalanche — have put up 14 over the first three. The Bruins scored 13 times in the first three games of the 2019 Final, the end result of which won’t be discussed here.
▪ Speaking of history, this Habs team doesn’t look like it will come back from 3-0 down, a feat accomplished only by the 1942 Maple Leafs. Not with Carey Price (.825 save percentage through three games) allowing softies. Not with all the mistakes they keep making.
▪ On the opening shift, returning coach Dominique Ducharme got his preferred matchup: his shutdown line, Artturi Lehkonen-Phillip Danault-Brendan Gallagher, against Tampa’s Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Nikita Kucherov power trio.
But off an icing 1:28 in, Jon Cooper sent out his top line against a tired Habs unit. Little-used defenseman Jon Merrill was part of the group that screened Price as Jan Rutta’s point shot found the top left corner.
▪ Shortly after, Eric Staal dumped the puck over the glass. Victor Hedman, who set up Rutta’s goal with a nifty backhand feed, hammered a slapper past Price. Two goals on five shots. Ducharme called his timeout, 3:27 into the first Cup Final game in Montreal in 28 years.
NBC’s broadcast crew later ripped him for not switching up his lines early enough, with the game getting away from him, but what was he supposed to do, really? The talent disparity was on display throughout.
Fourth-liner Tyler Johnson scored twice, including one set up by a crafty skate feed by linemate Mathieu Joseph, the 13th forward who entered after Alex Killorn’s Game 1 injury.
Meanwhile, Ducharme is barely using his third defense pair (Merrill and Erik Gustafsson), and his most-deployed defender, Ben Chiarot, has been on the ice for eight of Tampa’s 14 goals.
▪ The Habs had life when Danault, the defensive-minded center, scored his first of the playoffs to make it 2-1. Like a basketball team sagging off the big man who can’t shoot, the Lightning hardly marked Danault on the way into the zone. He clanked it off the left and right posts for his first goal in 21 games.
▪ That meant Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who allowed two goals on his first 61 shots of the series, was finally beaten by a shot that didn’t deflect off two of his teammates on the way. He allowed his first bad one of the series with 1:56 left in the second, when Nick Suzuki made it 4-2 with a rush chance off the wing, finding space under the pad.
Overall, the Vezina Trophy finalist was doing what Price was not: fighting through screens, finding pucks in traffic. It helped that Montreal’s attack was mostly of the one-and-done variety.
▪ More Montreal mistakes: On Kucherov’s 3-1 goal, at 1:40 of the second, Lehkonen couldn’t get the puck in deep as the Habs changed off. Erik Cernak pounced, sending a stretch pass to Palat, who helped Kucherov (8-24—32 in 21 games) pad his Conn Smythe résumé.
▪ The official attendance was 3,500 after Quebec public health authorities denied the Canadiens’ request to increase capacity to some 10,500. On TV, it looked and sounded like a bunch more sneaked in. “There’s at least 7,000 people here,” remarked NBC’s Ed Olczyk in the second period.
▪ Trivia: Rutta scored the first NHL goal in July. Hedman became the first player to score a goal in all 12 calendar months. Corey Perry repeated the feat thanks to his roof job in the waning minutes.
▪ If all this Habsenfreude wasn’t enough for you, one more historical nugget: The Maple Leafs, without a Cup title for 54 years, on Saturday passed the Rangers for the longest drought in history: 19,786 days.