And the Tampa Bay Lightning are now one victory from sipping out of hockey’s holy grail for the second time in just over 10 months.
Tyler Johnson scored twice, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman had a goal and an assist each, and Tampa defeated Montreal 6-3 on Friday to take a 3-0 stranglehold in the final.
Jan Rutta and Blake Coleman, into and empty net, also scored, while Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 32 shots. Ondrej Palat added two assists. After missing the entire regular season because of hip surgery, Kucherov’s two points gives him a league-best 32 in these playoffs.
The Lightning, who won the franchise’s second title inside last season’s playoff bubble necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, can clinch another Cup on Monday at the Bell Centre.
Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki and Corey Perry replied for the underdog Canadiens. Carey Price made 24 saves with head coach Dominique Ducharme back behind Montreal’s bench for the first time since a positive COVID-19 test on June 18.
Only four NHL teams have come back from 3-0 deficits to win best-of-seven series: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs — in the final — along with the 1975 New York Islanders, 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and 2014 Los Angeles Kings.
Once again without winger Alex Killorn because of a lower-body injury suffered in Game 1, the Lightning grabbed an early 2-0 lead to silence a spirited crowd of 3,500 fans because of continuing coronavirus restrictions.
Rutta scored his second goal of the playoffs on a shot through traffic just 1:52 into the first following an icing and after Montreal winger Josh Anderson couldn’t get the puck out of his zone.
Canadiens winger Eric Staal then fired a clearing attempt over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty to hand Tampa’s lethal power play its first opportunity.
Hedman promptly made Montreal pay at 3:27 when he waited for a screen and blasted home his second off the glove of a surprisingly shaky Price.
Ducharme called timeout to calm his team down, but Price had to swipe a loose bouncing puck out of his crease once action resumed as the visitors continued to push.
The Canadiens finally started to show life a few minutes later, with rookie sniper Cole Caufield firing off the base of Vasilevskiy’s right post.
Then with Brendan Gallagher driving the net, Danault’s shot struck the same post upstairs, but this time also found twine for his first.
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The underdog Canadiens, 18th in the overall standings following the league’s 56-game pandemic schedule, probably felt good about themselves heading to the intermission, but again somehow lacked the requisite energy to start the second.
Lightning defenceman Erik Cernak caught Montreal on a bad line change, sending Palat in on a 2-on-0 with Kucherov, who scored his eighth at 1:40 to make it 3-1.
Tampa continued to turn the screw on its Atlantic Division rivals — in any season save for this one — at 3:30 on another odd-man rush. Mathieu Joseph saw his shot on a 2-on-1 stopped by Price, but the rebound struck the Quebec-born winger’s leg and fell favourably to Johnson for him to bury his third at 3:33.
Price kept Montreal’s flickering hopes alive with a huge save on a Kucherov wraparound later in the period.
Vasilevskiy, who stopped 42 shots in Game 2 and 16 more in Friday’s opening 20 minutes, didn’t have much to do in the period, and it might have showed when Suzuki’s effort from a sharp angle beat him between the pads for his seventh with 1:56 left in the period to give the Canadiens life.
Montreal finally started a period on time in the third, but couldn’t find a way past Vasilevskiy early. Johnson scored his second of the night with 4:41 left to make it 5-2 and Perry replied with his fourth 39 seconds later.
But Coleman scored his third into an empty net to move Tampa within one win of another title.
The first NHL regular-season or playoff contest ever held in July, the Canadiens hosted their first Cup final game since June 9, 1993, when they won the franchise’s 24th — and Canada’s last — Cup over Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings at the Montreal Forum.
Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus in the hours before Game 3 of the Canadiens’ semifinal matchup with Vegas.
His team went a surprising 3-1 the rest of the way in that series — the Canadiens also stunned Toronto and Winnipeg in the first two rounds — with assistant coach Luke Richardson calling the shots to secure Montreal’s first trip to the Cup final in 28 years.
The Canadiens, who came back from 3-1 down against the Leafs to win that series, wanted to increase attendance at the Bell Centre for the final from 3,500 to 10,500 inside the 21,302-seat venue, but Quebec’s government denied the request.
Ducharme called the decision “very disappointing” prior to Game 3, while also pointing to the massive crowds that have congregated outside the arena during an unlikely playoff run.
“As much as it could have been a way to reward those who have gotten their two doses, it could have been an incentive to get even more people vaccinated,” he said in French following Friday’s morning skate. “It could have been a way to reward our fans, the people who have gone through 14 or 15 months of isolation, to have the chance to participate in an event like this.
The price for the cheapest pair of tickets on one resale website an hour before puck drop stood at just under $3,200. The Lightning and Canadiens played in front of 15,911 and 17,166 fans, respectively, for Games 1 and 2 in Tampa.
“We’ll have 3,500 inside and probably 25,000 outside who are going to be shoulder-to-shoulder,” Ducharme added.
“It’s hard to see the logic.”
After his team’s effort, and Tampa’s resolve, in Game 3, it’s even harder to see Montreal securing that 25th title.