A long weekend in Montreal, indeed.
The 2021 Stanley Cup Final appears headed toward an uncompetitive, anti-climatic conclusion, with the Tampa Bay Lightning now one win from repeating as champions following a 6-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 3.
The building, and city, were each charged to the nth degree, but the performance from Montreal was riddled with mistakes. Tampa Bay converted several of those mistakes into quick strikes to start the first and second periods, preventing the Canadiens from ever putting themselves in position to climb back into the series.
Now, Montreal risks having its magical run cut short by way of sweep in the Stanley Cup Final in a do-or-die Game 4 on Monday back at Bell Centre.
Tyler Johnson struck twice, and Jan Rutta, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Blake Coleman also had goals for Tampa Bay, while Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki and Corey Perry had momentary answers for Montreal.
Here's what happened in Game 3:
Here's the thing about Cinderella
We love an unexpected run. A wrench in the plans is far more interesting that watching favourite after favourite take care of business. But in sports, what an unexpected run often does is suck the intrigue out of the most important moments. That seems to be what's happening here in the Stanley Cup Final.
The chasm we thought existed between these two teams, in fact does. We knew Tampa Bay was the model franchise in the cap era, and clinging to togetherness by stretching the rules as the financial parameters threaten to tear them apart. We expected that Montreal was something in between the 18th-place, mediocre outfit that struggled to make the postseason in arguably the weakest division in hockey and the postseason-built side that found an answer for three straight opponents on the path to this moment.
What we thought we knew has held firm. Tampa Bay simply stacks up better. It has the high-end talents. It has the impenetrable defence. It has the better netminder in the series in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is coolly out-performing Carey Price. Jon Cooper will look to line match but, if we are being honest with ourselves, it doesn't really matter which lines, pairings or personnel is out there at any moment for the Lightning. They can feel comfortable in just about every situation.
That last bit is really the key. Tampa Bay is unlike each of Montreal's previous three opponents in that it has all the bases covered. For example, a lesser team might be tentative to start in the first Stanley Cup Final game in almost 30 years in one of the most hockey-crazy cities in the world. Instead the Lightning seemed to use that — an over-exuberance — to their advantage tonight.
There are layers to the Lightning, formed over time from past successes and failures. They've been absorbing information specific to this moment for the last decade in the Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman era. They have acquired, and can wear every hat.
Everything they have learned has been applied on the path toward what very much appears to be eight consecutive postseason series victories and two championships.
And it doesn't seem the Canadiens have seen enough, or have experienced enough while skipping over portions of the curriculum, in order to disrupt that.
I touched on it in the previous point, but it is worth detailing just how imbalanced the goaltending battle has been in the series.
After riding a .934 save percentage into the Stanley Cup Final — and legitimately campaigning for the Conn Smythe Trophy win or lose — Price has fallen unbelievably flat in the NHL's championship series. Allowing five goals on 30 shots in the game, the Canadiens netminder has now been beaten 13 times in the first three games of the series. Now his .835 save percentage is well over a 100 points worse than Vasilevskiy's mark in the head-to-head matchup between arguably the best two goaltenders on the planet.
Price acknowledged as much, stating. the obvious in the post-game:
"I can definitely play better. It's just not good enough so far."
Finally, we'd have the chance to see what Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallgher had for Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. With last change, Dominique Ducharme, returning from his COVID-19 absence, could stick his dominant shutdown line on the best duo in hockey right now. Perhaps this could be the key into Montreal playing itself back into the series.
Instead, in the span of two shifts the Lightning accomplished what Montreal couldn't, creating an advantageous matchup and capitalizing on it.
That was the Montreal third line out there versus Point, Kucherov, and the always under-advertised Ondrej Palat, who combined to engineer a goal-scoring play in their first shift away from Montreal's top line.
And it's too bad, because Danault and Gallagher were exceptional at certain points versus the Point-Kucherov partnership, winning the matchup in the end on Danault's first of the playoffs.
A one-man dynasty
Patrick Maroon is on the cusp of something special, something that can't be properly contextualized.
Barring an epic collapse, the Lightning fourth liner will win his third consecutive Stanley Cup, and match the small group of active players with three inscriptions on sports' grandest trophy.
I keep thinking about this, and asking myself what this means from a historical perspective. Is this the greatest average career in the current era of hockey? Is this one of the most enviable careers ever — even if he's not been much more than a bit part in these championship runs? What percentile of players can say they've had a more worthwhile career?
The only answers I have is that I'll be thinking about this long after the series, and the celebration.
And that Maroon will once again enjoy those beers.
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