MONTREAL — Tyler Johnson and the quick-strike Tampa Bay Lightning moved a victory away from successfully defending their title, beating the Montreal Canadiens 6-3 on Friday night in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
The Lightning caught the Canadiens flat-footed by scoring twice in the opening minutes of each of the first two periods to take a 3-0 series lead. Game 4 is Monday night in Montreal.
Tampa Bay is in position to join Pittsburgh (2016 and ’17) in becoming the second team to win consecutive titles since 1999. The Lightning also have an opportunity to complete the first sweep in the final since Detroit beat Washington in 1998.
“The Stanley Cup is enough motivation for us as hockey players,” defenseman Victor Hedman said about the opportunity to become the second repeat champions since 1999.
“Obviously, what we did in the bubble last year was very special, and you want to relive that moment, but at the end of the day, we’re not there yet,” he added, referring to the Lightning beating Dallas in six games last year in the final played in Edmonton, Alberta. “We’re not satisfied until it’s done.”
Johnson scored twice and Hedman and Nikita Kurcherov each had a goal and assist. Jan Rutta and Blake Coleman, with an empty-netter, also scored for the Lightning, who also won the Cup in 2004. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 31 shots
Vasilevskiy inexplicably whiffed in allowing Nick Suzuki’s shot from the right circle beat him through the legs to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 4-2 with 1:56 left in the second period. The goalie responded by stopping the first eight shots he faced in the third period, including Joel Armia from in close, before Johnson scored his second goal to put the Lightning up 5-2 with 4:41 left.
The game was the NHL’s first played in the month of July, a year after playing its first games in August.
Playing the first Stanley Cup Final since their championship-winning 4-1 victory over the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 at the Montreal Forum on June 9, 1993, did little to spark the Canadiens. Neither did the return of interim coach Dominique Ducharme for the Canadiens, who were outscored 8-2 in two games at Tampa Bay.
One of Ducharme’s first moves was to spend Montreal’s only timeout after the Lightning scored 1:35 apart to build a 2-0 lead 3:27 in. Ducharme spent the past two weeks in mandatory self-quarantine in Montreal after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Canadiens’ respected defense and Carey Price’s stellar goaltending that carried them to their surprising playoff run have proven no match for the Lightning.
“I can definitely play better. it’s just not good enough so far,” said Price, who gave up five goals on 25 shots.
He’s not the only one.
Down 2-1 after one period, Montreal unraveled to open the second period.
Defenseman Erik Cernak caught the Canadiens sleeping on a line change to set up Kucherov scoring on a 2-on-0 break 1:40 into the period. From deep in his own zone, Cernak sent a pass intended for Ondrej Palat at Montreal’s blue line. Palat chased down the puck at the left circle and fed Kucherov, who flipped it in the open right side.
Johnson scored 1:53 later on a 2-on-1 break and after Price got his blocker up to stop Mathieu Joseph’s shot from the left circle. The rebound caromed off Joseph’s skate and directly to Johnson who backhanded it into the open right side.
The Lightning have scored the opening goal in all three games and have yet to trail in the series.
“We have a game plan, right?” Kucherov said. “Everybody’s buying in and everybody’s doing their job. And when everybody’s doing their job it makes it easier and we all play a full 60 minutes the right way.”
Phillip Danault and Corey Perry also scored for a Montreal team that felt disrespected in making its deepest playoff run since winning its 24th Cup. The Canadiens entered the postseason with the worst record of the NHL’s 16 qualifiers before rallying from a 3-1 first-round series deficit against Toronto, sweeping Winnipeg in the second round and then eliminating Vegas in a six-game semifinals series.
“We don’t have a choice,” Price said. “We’ve overcome adversity all season long, and our backs are obviously against the wall, so we’ll have to start bringing our best.”
In NHL playoff history, only four teams have rallied to win a series after losing the first three games, with Toronto the only one to do so in the final in beating Detroit to win the Cup in 1942. The Los Angeles Kings were the last team to overcome a 3-0 series deficit by beating San Jose in a 2014 first-round series.