Still Talkin’ Habs: The Cup run no one expected is almost at an end

Part of the journey is the end.

The Montreal Canadiens best season this century is set to sadly finish with a whimper after the Tampa Bay Lightning crushed them 6-3 in Game 3 to move within one win of their second straight Stanley Cup.

The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team to ever overturn a 3-0 deficit in the Cup Final, so there is a miniscule sliver of hope for the most passionately devoted Habs fans.

It’s not going to happen.

What was most disheartening about last night’s loss was the manner in which it happened.

Apart from Phillip Danault and his linemates, who had a good game?

After Tampa goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stymied what was likely the Canadiens best effort these playoffs in Game 2, the expectations were that Habs goaltender Carey Price was going to have to meet that standard for his team to have a chance against the Harlem Globetrotters of hockey.

What occurred was exactly the opposite.

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) watches from the bench after being pulled for an extra attacker during third period of Game 3 NHL Stanley Cup finals hockey action against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday, July 2, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz 

As much as it pains me to say it, having been and to this day still one of the most ardent supporters of Price, last night’s loss was on him. The Canadiens netminder had his worst game of the playoffs at the most inopportune time. Brendan Gallagher may be the heart and soul of this team but Price is the foundation. Without him at his best, the house of cards crumbles. That’s precisely what happened in Game 3.

Price’s puck tracking is usually one of the hallmarks of his game. Although there was traffic in front of him on Jan Ruuta’s opening goal, he was able to get a clean look at the puck off the Lightning defenseman’s stick before it beat him blocker side. We’ve all seen him make saves like that before.

Ditto for Victor Hedman’s goal on the powerplay, an inexcusable goal to give up considering the circumstances.

Nikita Kucherov’s goal on a 2-on-0 may have been near impossible to stop, but Price overplayed Ondrej Palat’s shooting angle and could not get across to make the save. Tyler Johnson’s second was a rebound off the shoulder that Price usually squeezes. But the damage had already been done by then.

To be fair to the Habs goaltender, there were plenty of mistakes on each of those goals that don’t entirely lie at his feet, but the psychological impact of their MVP having an off night on the biggest stage was palpable amongst the players and the 3,500 fans at the Bell Centre. It spread like a cancer with each Lightning goal. One missed pass became a bad pinch which became a bad change which became a bad goal.

The snowball grew into an avalanche quickly, helped along by the Lightning’s ruthlessness and experience. After going down 3-1, you could tell that the belief in the comeback was gone. The mountain had become just too steep to climb.

I’ve asked the question multiple times this year. What were your expectations for the 2021 version of your Montreal Canadiens?

I personally believed the Habs had to win at least one playoff series for the season to be considered a success. I also thought that there would have to be a considerable step forward from the young players the team has lauded these many years now.

No one had this group making the Stanley Cup Final. That is small comfort now that the Canadiens are set to crash out of the playoffs, but the Habs have emphatically opened their Cup window wide open.

Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield have arrived. Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson, Josh Anderson and Jake Allen settled in as impact players on their new team. Shea Weber proved he still has a few good years left. Price returned back to a superstar level of goaltending when it mattered most (except for last night).

To a man, whether they started the season with the club or joined mid-way through, they took a significant step forward to get the team to this point. Again, it is a small comfort now after such a dismal showing with their season on the line last night. But the individual and team progress in 2021 should have fans more optimistic about the future than they have been this century.

Lord Stanley’s mug is effectively gone now, that much is clear. What the Habs have to play for now on Monday night is pride. No team has been swept in the Cup Final since the 1997-98 Washington Capitals at the hands of the vaunted Detroit Red Wings. The Canadiens will have to dig deep to ensure that doesn’t happen. A win on home ice in the Final for the first time in 28 years will have to do for Habs nation this year.

You have to learn to lose before you can learn how to win. Just ask the Lightning. The Canadiens learned quite a painful lesson last night. Hopefully it will pay off somewhere down the road. 


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