Habs brace for biggest test: Defending champion Lightning

MONTREAL — Artturi Lehkonen is keeping his composure after becoming part of the Montreal Canadiens’ illustrious history by scoring the franchise’s most important goal in nearly three decades.

If the upstart Canadiens’ remarkable playoff run has been fueled, in part, by a desire to earn respect, then their journey is not yet complete. The team with the worst record of the NHL’s 16 playoff qualifiers now has the daunting task of facing the defending champion Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, which opens at Tampa Bay on Monday.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence,” Lekhonen said Saturday, two days after his goal at 1:39 of overtime sealed a 3-2 win over Vegas in Game 6 of the semifinals and vaulted Montreal to its first Cup Final appearance since winning its 24th title in 1993.

“I’ve received a lot of messages after that, but can’t get too hyped up about it yet,” the 25-year-old checking line forward added. “If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”

The Lightning are as good as they come in advancing to the championship round for the third time since 2015, and following a 1-0 win over the New York Islanders in Game 7 of their semifinal series on Friday.

Tampa Bay is 13-0 when coming off a playoff loss in winning seven straight series, and became the fourth team in the NHL’s salary-cap era to repeat as a finalist. The Lightning feature a playoff-experienced lineup which includes goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has posted shutouts in four straight series-clinching wins. The run dates to Tampa Bay’s 2-0 win over Dallas in Game 6 of last year’s Final.

Montreal forward Corey Perry wasn’t interested in revisiting what happened last year during his one season with Dallas.

And yet, he’s more familiar than any of his teammates when it comes to assessing the Lightning, considering the NHL was limited to inter-division play only this year.

“You look up and down their lineup … you can talk about them all day long,” Perry said.

“They added grit at the deadline last year, and kind of taken off,” he added. “We’re excited for this opportunity. We’re here for a reason. They’re here for a reason.”

The teams haven’t met since the Lightning completed a four-game season-series sweep of Montreal with a 4-0 win at Tampa Bay on March 5, 2020. Montreal is 2-8-2 in its past 12 meetings and 0-5-1 at Tampa Bay since a 2-1 overtime win on April 1, 2017.

The Lightning have a 2-1 playoff series edge over Montreal, including a six-game second-round win in their previous meeting in 2015.

Both teams are similar in how their respective general managers remade their rosters by adding size and playoff experience to offset past playoff collapses.

Last year, Tampa Bay’s Julien Brisebois’ additions of Pat Maroon, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman played key roles on a team coming off an embarrassing four-game, first-round loss to Columbus in 2019.

“It was all building blocks to get here,” coach Jon Cooper said, referring to the Lightning’s past playoff failures. “But look, we haven’t won the Stanley Cup this year, we’re chasing it just like Montreal.”

This year, Montreal’s Marc Bergevin, made similar moves in adding forwards Perry, Tyler Toffoli and Eric Staal, and defenseman Joel Edmundson — all former Cup winners — to a team that had won four playoff series (including a preliminary round last year) since 2011.

The Canadiens, who swept Winnipeg in the second round, have won 11 of 13 games since falling behind 3-1 in the first round to Toronto. And Montreal keeps winning despite having interim coach Dominique Ducharme spending the past week in self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

Assistant Luke Richardson is filling in for Ducharme, who is expected to return for Game 3 on Friday in Montreal.

“For sure, when we talk about adversity, they faced adversity. They went through some ups and downs and learned from it,” Ducharme said of the Lightning. “There’s a reason why they’re back in the Final this year.”

The Canadiens have the respect of Lightning captain Steven Stamkos.

“They’re going to get the best team that they’ve played against so far, and we’re going to get the best team that we’ve played against so far,” Stamkos said. “You don’t get to the finals by luck.”

Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher had enough faith in Bergevin’s vision to stay in Montreal by signing a six-year, $39 million contract extension in October.

“The one question I had to ask myself was obviously you want to leave the league a winner,” Gallagher said. “There were ups and downs this year, but the belief in this group has never wavered, never changed. We always knew this was possible. We just did what we were capable of doing.”

Whyno reported from Washington.

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