Every Shot, and Second, Counts for Tampa Bay

by Msnbctv news staff

TAMPA, Fla. — It was a cute idea, really it was. This notion that as the final seconds ticked off and play lingered in the neutral zone, the middle period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals would end, just end, with the score still tied but the Montreal Canadiens in control. A puck, though, can do some wondrous things, and Lightning wing Barclay Goodrow flipped it past one Montreal defenseman, then maneuvered it past another to whip a backhand pass across the slot.

There was no time left until there was just enough. Smoke sprayed from behind Canadiens goalie Carey Price, and the crowd whooped and yelled, and the man whose diving flick sent the puck into the net barreled headfirst toward the boards. Two years ago Blake Coleman scored one of the most unbelievable goals in recent N.H.L. annals, but this effort — an eventual game-winner, with three-tenths of a second remaining in a period, in the Stanley Cup finals — far surpassed it.

After their 3-1 win Wednesday at Amalie Arena, Tampa Bay leads the best-of-seven series by two games to none, and the Canadiens must be wondering how they could do so many things right and yet still might wind up watching the Lightning hoist the Stanley Cup next week in Montreal.

That is the inherent problem with playing the Lightning, who can also do so many things wrong — uncharacteristic things — but have the quick-strike potential to crush dreams and souls.

The Canadiens nearly doubled Tampa Bay’s shot total, 43-23, and lost. They lost because they couldn’t solve Andrei Vasilevskiy, who saved 42 shots, and they couldn’t get out of a period that was over until it wasn’t.

Coleman plays on Tampa Bay’s sandpaper third line, which Coach Jon Cooper has deployed against Montreal’s top line, all but erasing it. He and his linemates — Goodrow and Yanni Gourde — embody this new incarnation of the Lightning, a team with copious amounts of speed and skill, yes, but also snarl and a defensive identity.

Goodrow initiated the decisive sequence by knocking the puck past Ben Chiarot and then driving toward the net. He shimmied ever so slightly to gain space to send the puck from circle to circle, toward Coleman, who was draped by Phillip Danault. And as Coleman fell, his stick met Goodrow’s pass and nudged it inside the near post, just before — maybe three-tenths of a second before? — Price slid over.

Maybe it all felt familiar to Coleman, who seems to specialize in scoring goals he shouldn’t. As a member of the Devils, he jolted a one-handed shot into the net while falling against the Winnipeg Jets. In college at Miami University in Ohio, he did the same in a playoff game against Western Michigan.

The Tampa Bay fans’ roar was deafening, almost as loud as the chants that rang long and true: “Vasy! Vasy! Vasy!” They echoed not after Vasilevskiy thwarted the Canadiens’ first breakaway of the opening period, or their second, or the in-tight backhander, but before the puck was dropped Wednesday night and the American and Canadian anthems were sung.

Price has been outplayed this postseason only by Vasilevskiy, who punctuated all three series clinchers — against the Florida Panthers, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Islanders — with shutouts and has yielded just two goals, one in each game, against the Canadiens.

The Canadiens played hockey in this bizarre alternate universe in Game 1, a place where they resembled not the team that rampaged through the playoffs but all the opponents they vanquished: disjointed and discombobulated, reckless with the puck and unstructured without it. Like spectators, Danault said.

Upon reflection, and they did have an off day on Tuesday to sift through the detritus, the Canadiens seized on the notion of simplicity. As in, keep doing what they have been doing — just do it better, and with more verve.

The first period unspooled as if Montreal had heeded Danault’s charge. Instead of defending odd-man rushes, the Canadiens created them. They sprang two breakaways, sprayed shots from all angles and penetrated the once-impermeable space in front of Vasilevskiy. They also did not score.

When Tampa Bay opened the scoring at 6 minutes 40 seconds of the second period, on Anthony Cirelli’s point shot that whistled through a thicket of bodies, it came against the run of play. The Canadiens kept peppering Vasilevskiy, kept driving play to the outside, and were rewarded when Nick Suzuki dribbled in a backhander from the slot that appeared to deflect off at least one Lightning player.

His goal evened the score at 1-1 at 10:36, and it stayed that way for most of the second period — but not all of it.

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