TAMPA, Fla. — The loser of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final has won the championship each of the past three years.
The Tampa Bay Lightning will likely end that streak if the Montreal Canadiens do not get a better showing from their offensively talented line of Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli.
While the Canadiens have a knack for bouncing back this postseason, the series opener was an eye-opener against Tampa Bay’s top trio of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. Because the Lightning get the last line change again in Game 2 on Wednesday night, coach Jon Cooper can get Point’s line on the ice against Suzuki’s as much as he wants, and that does not appear to be a favorable matchup for Montreal.
“It looks like they want to play against us the whole time, so we have to do a better job,” Suzuki said, noting his two turnovers as part of his line’s problems. “You just have to do a better job of cleaning up turnovers, limit their time and space and try our best to keep them off the scoresheet.”
That did not happen in Game 1, when Point’s line scored twice on Suzuki’s line on the way to breaking it open for a 5-1 victory. Giving the puck away against that caliber of opponents isn’t a recipe for Montreal hanging with Tampa Bay.
Of course, the Canadiens have felt this way before, looking outclassed in the semifinal opener against Vegas before roaring back and winning in six games. The memory of taking over against Vegas and erasing a 3-1 series deficit to beat Toronto in the first round has players confident they can replicate those comebacks.
It starts with acknowledging how bad Game 1 was.
“We were pretty far from our best game,” center Phillip Danault said. “I felt like we were a little bit like against Vegas (in Game 1), kind of looking. We’ve got some young guys, … Just got to step up and play our game and be confident.”
Montreal’s best game is getting a lead, buckling down defensively and counting on goaltender Carey Price to make saves. Acting coach Luke Richardson said Monday was one of his team’s worst performances in recent weeks and blamed poor puck management.
Richardson insisted execution, not personnel, was the primary issue.
“Those are going to be the adjustments: to make sure we’re playing a little smarter with the puck,” Richardson said. “They’re going to create their own offense. We don’t have to help them in any way, that’s for sure. So if we can limit that to very little to none, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to have more energy for our own game plan and having more success.”
The Lightning’s game plan perfectly neutralized many of the things the Canadiens did to get this far, including Price and the penalty kill, which had a streak of 32 opportunities without a power-play goal snapped late in the third period.
Cooper and his team will also need to adjust to Montreal’s adjustments and will rely on a mature approach to playoff hockey.
“(We are) trying to get to the strength of our game as much as possible and wear teams down over the course of a long series,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We always think big-picture that it might end up taking seven games, so if we stick with our details and continue to play with the pace and the structure and the pressure that we can do, we think it pays off in the long run.”
The Lightning know very well how to play the long game and how the Canadiens feel after losing a series opener. They did last year in the final falling behind to Dallas and last round against the New York Islanders.
Tampa Bay players have said on multiple occasions the Canadiens are “here for a reason” and that they won’t underestimate the opponent standing in their way of a second Cup championship. But the pressure is now squarely on Montreal to show it belongs.
Suzuki said the approach is trying to steal one on the road before going back home for Games 3 and 4 but also acknowledged Game 2 is “going to be a big one for confidence,
“We’ll respond well,” he said. “I think we just got a taste of what they bring to the table and we just have to match that intensity, match their compete and I think we can definitely play with these guys.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno