TAMPA, Fla. — The perfect team for these pandemic times dressed in the visiting locker room at Amalie Arena on Monday night. Just as the N.H.L. postseason started to reclaim a scrap of normalcy, with the Canadian bubbles of last summer replaced by games at home venues — and before frothing crowds, no less — along came the Montreal Canadiens.
They advanced to the Stanley Cup finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the reigning champions, with an interim interim coach, after ousting two of the league’s behemoths, and despite facing elimination not once or twice but three times in their first-round series. Now, this might pique the nice folks in la belle province, but in any other season Montreal — which finished in the bottom half of the N.H.L., with the fewest points of any playoff team — probably wouldn’t have even qualified for the postseason.
“They are exactly where they thought they would be,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said Monday morning. “They didn’t go the same route, so it looks different because they look like the Cinderella team. But I don’t believe that for a second. And nobody does in our room.”
The Canadiens reached this stage by adapting and adjusting, and if they are to end Canada’s nearly three-decade drought and add another Cup to their heaving trophy case, they must acclimate again. They allowed the first two goals of Game 1, and the last three, as the Lightning rolled to a 5-1 victory.
At no point Monday night did the Lightning seem befuddled by Montreal’s neutral-zone choking, its opportunistic counterattacking or Carey Price’s brilliance in net, all elements that propelled the Canadiens’ unlikely stampede. Montreal’s puck mismanagement led to a bevy of turnovers, and Tampa capitalized. Nikita Kucherov scored twice for Tampa Bay, and Brayden Point padded a stellar all-around game with three assists.
Even though their performance over the past month — 11 victories in 13 games — demonstrated that they belonged among the league’s best, the Canadiens could be forgiven for wanting to prove themselves once more. The last team to finish the regular season as low as 18th place and reach the Cup finals was Philadelphia in 2010. The next season, Vancouver made the finals, and no team from Canada had gotten there since.
That is a source of great angst in Canada but especially in Montreal, which has won a record 24 titles but has not won a championship since 1993, when it toppled the Los Angeles Kings in five games.
In this truncated 56-game season, the Canadiens soared, then slumped. They fired their coach, then their goaltending coach. They lost Price and defenseman Shea Weber to injuries, then Joel Armia to a positive coronavirus test. They played their final 25 games in 44 days and lost 15 of them, including their last five. The playoffs beckoned only because, playing in a one-time division populated by all seven Canadian teams, Montreal finished fourth.
But its general manager, Marc Bergevin, is fond of saying that there are players who get you in, and there are players that get you through. He overhauled the roster in the off-season and again at the trade deadline, acquiring six players who have won Stanley Cups, including defenseman Joel Edmundson, the backup goalie Jake Allen and forwards Eric Staal, Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry.
The Canadiens, given scant time to practice after Dominique Ducharme — who replaced Claude Julien as the head coach on Feb. 24 — installed his new systems, coalesced midway through their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They stunned the Leafs in seven games, swept the Winnipeg Jets and throttled the Vegas Golden Knights in six, going 7-2 on the road as they were propped up by Price’s brilliance and a smothering defensive effort.
Led by center Phillip Danault, the Canadiens silenced their opponents’ top scorers in every round: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner didn’t have a goal while the Maple Leafs lost their last three games; Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois managed just one for Winnipeg; and Vegas’s Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlson combined for a grand total of none.
“Playing our game, to the best of our ability, will counter any team that we play right now,” said Montreal assistant Luke Richardson, who assumed coaching duties after Ducharme contracted the coronavirus. (Ducharme missed the last four games against Vegas but expects to return for Game 3 in Montreal.)
But on Monday the Canadiens did not play to the best of their ability, far from it. The Lightning are deeper than Lake Baikal, with four lines that score, smother and grind, and a goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is every bit as exceptional as Price.
Vasilevskiy saved 18 of 19 shots, his only blemish a second-period shot that pinballed off two of his own players.