Canadiens and the Quest for the All-Important First Goal

The last thing the Montreal Canadiens should want to do is chase storms at this point. Yet, after having given up the first goal to the Tampa Bay Lighting in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, they’ve been forced into it. Unfortunately, the Habs are far from experts, losing both, with Game 2 ending 3-1 in the Lightning’s favor.

The Comeback Canadiens

Truth be told, the Canadiens have only managed to come back and win a single game these playoffs after having given up the first goal: Game 3 against the Vegas Golden Knights. Ironically, one of their worst efforts of the playoffs, Game 3 saw the Golden Knights outshoot the Canadiens 45-27 and pull even on a late gift by Vezina Trophy-winner Marc-Andre Fleury.

It was the game which skeptics point to the most as proof the Habs have been luckier than good these playoffs. Obviously, just the opposite is true. The Habs have in fact been proven good instead of lucky, with Eric Staal having similarly given up the puck on Nicolas Roy’s game-opening goal and Carey Price leading the Habs the rest of the way in that one.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets Carey Price Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price and Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler – (Photo by Jason Halstead/Getty Images)

For the uninitiated, Price is indeed a member of the Canadiens, meaning any success he enjoys should not be asterisked in any way to detract from that of the team as a whole. Goalies tend to steal games in the playoffs and in some ways, the Canadiens were in effect “outPriced” against the Lightning in Game 2, with Andrei Vasilevskiy stealing the show.

To be fair, the Lightning didn’t just win Game 2 based solely on Vasilevskiy’s heroics. They got timely scoring, especially on the part of Blake Coleman with less than one second to go in the second period. They also capitalized on the Canadiens’ mistakes, like Ondrej Palat scoring on Joel Edmundson’s giveaway behind Price’s net in the third to put the game out of reach.

Canadiens Look to Start Another Streak

Just to reiterate, these are not signs of luck on the part of the Habs. If the Canadiens were truly lucky, they probably would be facing the New York Islanders right now instead. Even if facing the Lightning plays more into the Habs’ identity as the clear underdog, it’s clear Tampa is a different animal altogether… whatever is a predator of underdogs. I’d say some sort of large feline like a panther, but everyone knows how that went in Round 1 for Florida.

Of course, the Lightning entered these playoffs as No. 3 seeds. So, they technically weren’t favorites until Round 3 against the Islanders. However, the addition of leading-scorer Nikita Kucherov and their experience as reigning Stanley Cup champions has obviously overwhelmed opponents, the Canadiens included in Game 1, which they lost 5-1.

To their credit, the Canadiens showed their resilience in Game 2 by putting forth a much better effort, in which they were for all intents and purposes outclassed by the Lightning. In effect, the Canadiens had strayed from “their game” in the series opener with undisciplined play that led to Steven Stamkos snapping their record penalty-killing streak. They rediscovered their identity in Game 2, in which they killed all three penalties they took and kept the Lightning’s top stars scoreless and largely in check.

Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens’ infamous 13-game penalty-killing streak has largely defined the Canadiens’ run so far. However, it coincided with another impressive streak. Until they gave up the first goal to the Golden Knights in Game 1 of their series, the Habs hadn’t trailed in a total of 447:08, the second-longest such streak in NHL history, behind only the 1959-60 Canadiens, one of the best teams of all-time.

That streak started in Game 5 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, prior to which the Habs had been down 3-1 and almost every logical human being outside their locker room had written them off. Right now, their backs are against the wall to the same extent. They may not get eliminated after Game 3, regardless of the outcome. However, it would be near impossible for them to come back down three games to none, especially against the Lightning.

Suzuki: “We’ll Be Ready to Go.”

Coming back from 3-1 down again for the second time in a single playoffs would also be a tall task, with Nick Suzuki saying after Game 2: “Obviously, we don’t want the series to get away from us. You’ve got to win your home games… We know what’s at stake and we’ll be ready to go.”

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, the Canadiens are in a position where they effectively have to win the next two games at the very least. For their part, all of the Lightning’s 14 wins this postseason have come with them having scored the game-opening goal. They’ve admittedly still trailed several times in those games, down 2-1 in Game 1 against the Panthers and down 4-2 in Game 4 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Regardless, it’s clear that first goal is key.

It should be pointed out that scoring the first goal doesn’t guarantee the Canadiens a victory, with Jesperi Kotkaniemi having scored the game-opening goal in Game 2 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, only for the Habs to lose 5-1. The Canadiens also lost Game 4 to the Golden Knights 2-1 in overtime after Paul Byron opened the scoring then.

However, there are positives the Canadiens can definitely take out of Game 2 against the Lightning. As long as they are able to put up a similar effort in Game 3, they should be okay… at least in that one contest, as the Habs are theroretically past the point where they can afford to take it game by game. More like period by period, if that.

It starts with the first goal, with coach Luke Richardson saying: “[The Lighning play] well with the lead and we’ve got to make sure that we try and get that first goal next game if we can and play with the lead on them and try to turn the tables.”

Richardson added the following day: “I think we’ve played better from Game 1 to Game 2… We’re going to continue to see that in Game 3… I think we can pull some confidence from being down in series before and being confident in our style of play and just be a little bit more determined to finish.”

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