A different beast?
It felt as though the Montreal Canadiens encountered one in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, losing 5-1 to the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena.
Nikita Kucherov scored twice and Erik Cernak, Yanni Gourde and Steven Stamkos claimed singles for the Lightning, while Ben Chiarot registered the lone goal from the Habs.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 18 saves for his 13th victory on the path to 16 wins. Carey Price was the slightly busier of the two netminders, making 21 stops.
Here's what happened in Game 1:
Danault becomes the hunted
Tonight — and for the first time in these playoffs, really — we witnessed the limitations associated with having a top line that's focused entirely on the defensive side of things.
Up until this point, Phillip Danault, while working in tandem with the No. 1 defensive pair of Shea Weber and Chiarot, had been able to disarm the opposition's most powerful weapons. He frustrated Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. He grounded the Mark Scheifele-less top unit in Winnipeg. He had us convinced Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty were playing through debilitating ailments. Having digested all that, the belief was that Tampa Bay's extraordinary top offensive duo of Brayden Point and Kucherov would have to solve Danault to complete their duel over the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Instead, Jon Cooper made the coaching decisions others have failed to make, using his last change to stick his own checking line — the Gourde-Coleman-Goodrow unit — on the Danault line. Not to bottle it up or limit the damage per se, but to use up the minutes that would normally be dedicated to stifling his own firepower.
Looking at it now, this bit of reverse engineering seems so painfully obvious — even if it wasn't to Montreal's first three opponents, or to most of us who have been word-spilling on this series.
It almost seemed to create something of an identity crisis for the Danault line, which was being challenged to be a normal top line and score goals. With essentially zero overlap versus the Tampa Bay top six in the early going, it looked like the Danault line was trying to figure out its mandate while the players they believed they would be trying to shut down were busy establishing a lead.
By the end, Point and Kucherov totalled six points, combining to contribute on four of the five goals, while seeing just a handful of shifts versus Danault and less time than one would expect against Weber and Chiarot.
Kucherov looked A-OK
Though we will have to wait and see what a head-to-head matchup between the top lines looks like, Kucherov did answer some questions himself in the victory.
He swiftly dashed concerns over his health after appearing extremely limited in Game 7 versus the New York Islanders after being on the receiving end of a nasty cross check from Scott Mayfield in Game 6. He appeared unobstructed, engaged, motivated, and, most importantly, highly dangerous in Monday's victory, scoring two goals and collecting three primary points in the third period alone.
The last of those points was in several ways a statement. His orchestration on the late Stamkos goal served as his 30th point of the postseason (he is the only player not named Gretzky or Lemieux to do this in consecutive playoff runs), and ended a run of 31 consecutive successful penalty kills for the Canadiens.
Shoe on the other foot
Tampa Bay didn't rely exclusively on one single area in order to launch its attacks. It struck on a faceoff set, and of course the power play as well. But as they did versus the Islanders in Game 7 of the semifinals, the Lightning used their opponents' tactics against them in order to come away with a win.
Versus the Canadiens, this was the counter and transition game that Montreal used so effectively to trip up the Maple Leafs, Jets and Golden Knights on the path to the Stanley Cup Final. It seemed Tampa was routinely forcing the Canadiens into mistakes with the puck, and using those moments to create windows to pursue their own moments of attack.
The first three goals can be traced back to that — including the Cernak icebreaker, where Point picked off a pass from Cole Caufield and sent Ondrej Palat away in transition:
The officiating thing
There are adjustments for everyone — including the officials.
After commissioner Gary Bettman was grilled about the state of refereeing at his annual Stanley Cup Final press conference earlier in the day, it seemed the officials were a little over-eager in Game 1, calling two very soft minors on each side early in the game.
Thankfully, the teams performed largely within the rules inside the whistles, preventing a parade to the penalty box after the referees established the fairly low standard.
That said, we were presented with a very meme-able moment late, with blood running down Brendan Gallagher's face after falling dangerously in a scrum with Mikhail Sergachev. That incident wasn't as much of an officiating issue or Player Safety issue as it was the normal tenor between two teams trying to establish rank in the first game of a championship series. We've seen this movie play out many times before.
But I'm sure it wasn't the lasting image the league office was hoping for.
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