Still Talkin’ Habs: Canadiens overpower the champs…and lose 3-1

This isn’t the way the story goes. Goliath doesn’t land two-sucker punches.

The Montreal Canadiens put forth a gargantuan effort to push defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, to the brink, but ultimately lost a game they deserved to win by a score of 3-1 to fall behind 0-2 for the first time these playoffs in the Stanley Cup final.

David just got a little too close.

In this analogy, who is Tampa goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy?

A second leaping, teenage goliath, swatting away stones slung at the giant’s head?

Or is he perhaps some kind of indestructible helmet, deflecting away any would-be fatal attempts?

In every other series the Habs have played in these playoffs, Carey Price has unquestionably been the better goalie.

It is the principle upon which the Canadiens are built, and through no fault of his own, he is being outplayed by the only goaltender in the world who truly rivals him.

As a group, the Canadiens raised their game to a Cup final level Wednesday night.

It was impressive to watch a team put in a performance like that after already being abandoned by sections of their fan base after their Game 1 drubbing.

The Lightning is the favourite for a very good reason, but at times, the Habs owned them.

I’m not trying to patronize this team. I just never expected the Canadiens to dominate the Lightning at any point in this series.

They are proving to the hockey world, and to themselves, that they more than belong and could still come back to win this series.

But it’s difficult to imagine the Habs beating the Russian cyborg in goal at the other end four out of the next five games.

There was a coolness, a compactness in Vasilevskiy’s movements that was so Price-like it was Spiderman-pointing-into-a-mirror-at-himself-meme worthy.

There was a sense of impending doom every time he faced a Canadiens shooter.

Nick Suzuki, who again showed everyone why he is going to be a star in this league, can attest to that.

In a nearly flawless game by the Habs' young centre, his only fault may have been double-clutching on two rush chances early in the game that could have given his team that precious early lead.

As we’ve seen Price do to many a-shooter in his lengthy career, within 120 minutes, Vasilevskiy moved into the rent-free apartment in the Habs' heads. For good reason.

To anyone trying to find Price at fault for any of the three goals allowed, just remember -- the worst goal of the game was let in by Ivan Drago over there.

That is what the Canadiens have to hang their hats on after Wednesday night’s game.

It has been and will continue to be hard to beat Vasilevskiy.

Tampa’s hulking defencemen do a sensational job at clearing the front of his net as well, so greasy goals will be hard to come by.

But the Habs got one last night, regardless. If the Canadiens continue to play with the kind of belief and energy that they played with in Game 2, with last change and a crowd of 3,500, Game 3 could easily go their way.

Then you have a series. Then anything can truly happen. Like a slow backhand-dribbler slipping through the wickets of a goalie that was all-world Wednesday night.

Habs nation, you are in a tough and confusing place.

The experience that this run has given the likes of Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi makes you optimistic for the future.

You’re also smart enough to know that they are down 0-2 for the first time in these playoffs to the best team in the NHL.

Steve Shutt said on TSN 690 that a team needs to lose before they can learn how to win it all. He’s probably right. Who am I to question a five-time Stanley Cup champion?

But it’s too soon to talk about the future.

The Canadiens showed just how good they can be at Amalie Arena Wednesady night.

In the present. In the Stanley Cup final. Now. They more than held their own.

And it will take two more grinding wins to send them home.

We know the Habs won’t go quietly into that good night. There is still hope.

If not for two moments of madness from Canadiens defencemen, who knows what could have happened in Game 2.

It’s not time to throw in the towel just yet.

But everyone knows. It’s the hope that can kill you.

PLAYER RATINGS

GOALTENDER

Carey Price – 8/10

Glad to see some are hanging a shot through four players, a cross-crease pass and a defensive turnover on the Canadiens goalie. Nothing spectacular, but made several big saves on the penalty kill and a few off the rush that were crucial to maintaining the team’s confidence. Glove save on Coleman stood out. The harsh reality though, that he might have to play at a 10/10 level the rest of the series to give his team a chance. Such is the play of his counterpart at the other end.

DEFENCEMEN

Shea Weber – 7/10

So difficult to rate him. On the one hand, he and the rest of the defensive corps held the Lightning to eight shots through half the game. But like several of his brothers on the blueline, had a major negative part to play in his team’s demise. His was a suicide pass into traffic that was turned over in the neutral zone and became Coleman’s backbreaker with 0.3 seconds left in the second period. Great on the penalty kill, woeful on a nonsensical 4-on-3 powerplay. Backcheck on a potential Goodrow breakaway stood out. Passing was kind of good, kind of bad. Overall more of the former than the latter. I guess.

Ben Chiarot – 5/10

He was okay for large portions of the game, downright bad in spurts. But that fly-by at the blueline was le moment déclencheur for Coleman’s goal. Just a momentary lapse in judgement and the puck is in the back of the net in heart-wrenching fashion. It was a killer. It was a gut punch. Shook it off and again was alright in the third. His passing has been better and was a crucial part of another great night from the penalty kill. But when people look back at Game 2 of the 2021 Cup final against Tampa, they’ll remember that play.

Joel Edmundson – 6/10

Or maybe they’ll remember this. If Chiarot’s play at the blueline was a gut punch, his turnover behind the net to Palat was the knockout blow. The Canadiens still had time to make one last push. But it was over after his attempted reverse to Petry was intercepted and it was party time in Tampa. Before that, like Chiarot and Weber, fantastic on the penalty kill.

Threw some big and painful hits. His pass to spring Suzuki on his break was sublime. Passing as a whole was improved. But all that went out the window with 4:18 left to go in the third period. And he knew it.

Jeff Petry – 8/10

Led the blueline in shots on goal for what has to be the first time since his return from injury. Walked the line well at times to try and find a shooting/passing lane. The powerplay looked its best when he was the lone-man defenceman at the top. Albeit, the man advantage was dismal overall. The best of a bad batch of blueliners on the PP. Would have liked to see him drive the zone more in the third, but whether by design or due to his injury, it wasn’t often. When he did, he looked like a threat. Took several big hits in his end to make a play and was the Canadiens' best passer on the back end. Silly penalty to take. Defended well in his own zone, both off the rush and down low.

Jon Merrill – 6/10

For what he does, no complaints. Did his job on the penalty kill and defended the house well. But he was also the primary screen on Cirelli’s opener on Price, committing the cardinal sin of shot-blocking. Stop it or get out of the way. Credit to him, I thought his passing was better. Found the slot outlet multiple times in his own zone. Within his own limitations, he was solid enough.

Erik Gustafsson – 6/10

He could have changed the game on the powerplay and didn’t deliver. Was that his fault? Not necessarily. The coaching decision was baffling, to say the least, on the 4-on-3. But always felt like he made the wrong final decision with the puck. Shooting when he should have passed, passing when he should have shot. Did rush the puck through the neutral zone well, skated his way out of trouble more than once. Always have your heart in your mouth when he’s in his own end. But that’s who he is. Decent night of work but could have played a bigger role in the outcome.

FORWARDS

Nick Suzuki – 9/10

He’s only 21 years old, folks. What was that Claude Julien said? About only needing to tell him something once? Consider Game 1 his crash course in Cup-Final hockey. Game 2 was game time. At one point, he had as many shots on goals as the entire Tampa team. Aware defensively to dive and deny a Kucherov breakaway late. Tried to make something out of nothing on the power play. Turned pucks over and made great reads to cut off passing lanes, especially on the penalty kill. Constantly threatening going forward. His breakaway and two-on-one with Caufield were the team’s best chances to score. Just couldn’t get one by Vasilevskiy. Best player on the ice... Who wasn’t a goaltender.

Tyler Toffoli – 6/10

Had that half-chance on the breakaway where Cernak showed off his speed and closed him down. Still got a decent shot off, but stopped by Vasilevskiy’s shoulder. That was really it from him offensively. His lack of speed seems to be hurting him going up against the Lightning’s big and fast blueline. Had the best chance on an enraging 4-on-3 powerplay, but didn’t sense how much time he had and deflected a hard Suzuki pass wide. Did his job on the penalty kill. But he has been a non-factor through two games here. The Canadiens won’t win this series if their best goal scorer doesn’t produce. At the very least, he has to be much more of a threat.

Cole Caufield – 7/10

His usage on the powerplay, amongst other things, was strange, to say the least. Weber out there instead of him on a 4-on-3 powerplay was a criminal offence. To be fair, hasn’t found his feet on the main advantage as of yet. But he’s already your best shooter. Use him. Inaccurate when it came to his biggest chances Wednesday night, a slapshot off the rush that went wide and a pass to him in the slot off a won faceoff that also missed the mark. Terrific defensive play to break up a potential breakaway. Wasn’t as dynamic as we’ve seen and struggled to find space. But he, at least, had his moments.

Phillip Danault – 7/10

He was brilliant on the penalty kill. Certainly the standout performer there, Price included. Led the way on an altogether good night of work from the centres in the faceoff circle. He was all over the ice defensively. Closing down space in the neutral zone, supporting his defencemen in his own zone. He was always an outlet on the breakout. His passing through the neutral zone was clean. Entered the offensive zone with speed, but after that, his offensive limitations were on display. Couldn’t handle the pass at the red line that was the turnover for Coleman’s goal. But that’s more on the passer than the receiver. Scrumming it up at the end is always alright in my book.

Brendan Gallagher – 7/10

His best chance was a smart tip in the high slot that was destined for the five-hole, but was turned away by Vasilevskiy. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: competitive, feisty, went to the front of the net often. Didn’t get caught up in many of the shenanigans he found himself in the middle of in Game 1. To the benefit of his overall game. Was denied the front of the net multiple times by great boxing out by the Lightning. Undeterred, of course. To be fair, you’d like to see him have more than one shot on goal. But the job he did on the forecheck and defensively was exemplary.

Artturi Lehkonen – 7/10

Talk about leading by example. Hounded the Lightning defencemen all over the ice on the penalty kill. Like his linemates, he wasn’t able to generate much offensively, but was never beaten or outworked defensively. Can remember one particular shift where he challenged and disrupted Hedman at the blueline, then chased him back to his own blueline, nearly causing a turnover to go in alone. Nasty fall into the boards would have had me in a hospital bed. Came back in the third and gave it his all. But he was limited the rest of the way. His effort doesn’t get the notoriety it deserves.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 8/10

Clearly, someone told him to shoot more. Tried to fire off the Finnish missile multiple times, with mixed success. Did get four shots on goal to his credit. His best chance was a stroll down into the slot on an odd-man rush that was stopped by Vasilevskiy labelled five-hole. His breakouts were terrific. Made the simple one-touch passes to get out with speed. Was poised with the puck. My favourite thing about him is he always has possession on his mind. Chips the puck in to go get it back, but tries to never give the puck away cheaply in the neutral zone. Won most of his one-on-one battles defensively. Would still like to see more spark in the offensive zone, but he stepped up for his team last night. Tough night in the dot.

Josh Anderson – 7/10

When he cut in off the right side and drove on Vasilevskiy, you also thought he’s going backhand here. Sergachev put him off just enough to cut down his angle for his goalie to stop it. Not as physical, highlighted by his lone hit on the night. But still played with a lot of jump. Not nearly as noticeable offensively, but his passing between his linemates in transition was better. Four shots on goal, but the other three weren’t particularly dangerous. Kind of a mixed bag from him. Drifted in and out of the game.

Paul Byron – 7/10

Played with an edge. Little pitbull out there. Earned his first penalty by not backing down from Cernak at the blueline. Nearly broke off a couple of rushes in transition, but the puck was either just out of reach or wouldn’t settle for him. Does such a great job on the penalty kill harassing the puck carrier through the neutral zone and into his own zone. Played 200-feet of the ice well. Led the forwards with four hits. More of the same from him in Game 3.

Eric Staal – 7/10

His body positioning with the puck down low stood out. Didn’t really have a great chance in the game. Tried going short-side on Vasilevskiy on a 2-on-1, but made it easy for him. His line did their job superbly once again, owning the boards and keeping control of the puck even against the big boys on the backend for the Lightning. Created momentum and Tampa on their heels. Probably had the most offensive zone time of any line last night. Positive night on faceoffs as well. Just wish he could skate faster.

Joel Armia – 8/10

Maybe if you keep him away for another game, he’ll win the next four-straight for you by himself. Did not miss a beat and even raised his game on his return to the lineup. Simply bullied Lightning checkers off of him. Twisted and turned his way out of trouble while keeping the puck on his stick. It was a small segment of the game that was beautiful to watch. His best chance fell to him right in the slot, but his wrist shot high blocker side was parried away. Two or three standout shifts on the penalty kill. Was just missing a goal.

Corey Perry – 6/10

He did his bit with Armia and Staal keeping possession of the puck below the hashmarks. But other than an attempted centring pass to him on the power play that was denied by Vasilevskiy’s paddle, not much offensively. Definitely not to blame for how bad the powerplay looked at times, but he was not a very impactful part of it. Tried to start some nonsense towards the end, getting his stick in on the Russian goaltender and landing a jab on Hedman. He’s going to need to win one of those one-on-one battles in front of the net for a loose puck. Close but no cigar.

COACH

Luke Richardson – 7/10

Not smart enough to know if it was anything in particular, he did tactically or his players just raised their game to another level. Either way, it reflects well on him. Tampa’s big guns fell silent and that’s good enough. Penalty kill was outstanding again. His team played as close to a perfect road game as you can with the stakes close to their highest. Would have a higher rating if not for that 4-on-3 powerplay on the double minor. That was an abomination. Disgrace. Diabolical. Four guys stretched out to four corners out of the zone with three Lightning penalty killers protecting the inside. It was maddening. Two defencemen. No Caufield. Predictable movement. In a game where offence was so hard to come by and with the opposing goalie playing as well as he did, that was a key moment that was lost. A lead was on the line and they played it safe. Mind-boggling.   

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