All time, the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning have faced each other four times in the playoffs. Coincidentally, all four series have started off 3-0, with the Habs drawing the shorter end of the stick on three occasions… unfortunately including this current Stanley Cup Final after a decisive 6-3 Game 3 loss. However, there is hope for the Canadiens based on the last time around.
Price Wins Hart and Vezina
It was an era of unbridled maskless passion. The Canadiens had been coming off their last trip to the Eastern Conference Final in 2014, in which goalie Carey Price got injured in Game 1 after New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider crashed into him. Price rebounded in a big way in 2014-15, with a Hart Memorial and Vezina-winning performance, en route to an Atlantic Division title.
After dispatching the Ottawa Senators in six games that spring, the Habs and Lightning met in Round 2. Tyler Johnson and Max Pacioretty traded third-period goals in Game 1, with Nikita Kucherov ending it into double overtime. A dominant 6-2 Lightning victory in Game 2 was bookended by another 2-1 Lightning victory in Game 3, further hinting that the Canadiens could at least keep up with the Lightning in principle. Sound familiar?
Despite the 3-0 deficit at the time, the sentiment was made all the more believable when the Canadiens struck back with their own 6-2 victory in Game 4, in which Pacioretty had one goal and three points. After a 2-1 Game 5 win on the strength of a late P.A. Parenteau goal, the Canadiens were back in the series… and headed to the friendly confines of the Bell Centre for Game 6.
Alas, the comeback was not meant to be. Pacioretty tallied the lone Canadiens goal to make it 3-1 late in the third period that game, with Kucherov adding a dagger a few minutes later to seal the Habs’ fate. That was all she wrote, effectively for that incarnation of the Canadiens too. Despite a historic 9-0 start to the 2015-16 season, Price was limited to just 12 games due to injury and the Canadiens failed to make the playoffs in embarrassing fashion.
Bergevin Rebuilds Canadiens for Playoffs
A lot has admittedly changed since then. P.K. Subban was effectively scapegoated that offseason, getting traded for Shea Weber. Pacioretty eventually followed suit in a win-win deal to the Vegas Golden Knights that brought Nick Suzuki and Tomas Tatar to town. Even so, it was objectively a fairly dark period for the franchise, during which they failed to make the playoffs in three of four seasons.
The pandemic hit during the fifth, leading to a loophole in which the then-24th-ranked Canadiens got handed a shot at a playoff spot. They obviously made good on it, by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in their play-in series, leading to a hard-fought first-round series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers and general manager Marc Bergevin’s impactful offseason last fall. Their unforeseen run to the Stanley Cup Final notwithstanding, as Lightning coach Jon Cooper told the media prior to Game 1, the Canadiens are arguably where they expected to be.
“I think Montreal is built for the playoffs. I think they’re exactly where they thought they would be [in the preseason]… They look like the Cinderella team, but I don’t believe that for a second. Nobody does in our room,” he had said.
Maybe not down 3-0, but Bergevin obviously made a play to build on last postseason. A first-round win was almost necessary to show some progression from one season to the next. Considering the Habs’ success against Canadian teams at this season’s onset, a final-four berth was far from outside the realm of possibilities. Get far enough, and who knows? Anything can happen, including a major upset over the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 3.
Uncharted Territory for Comeback Canadiens
Does “anything” include an almost-unprecedented comeback from three games down? It’s at least possible. The 2015 Canadiens proved it, from both perspectives. When they dispatched the Senators, another Cinderella team in their own right, in six games, they too had taken a three-game lead only to lose the next two, leading to a few anxious moments en route to a 2-0 Game 6 win, which was only cemented by a (literally) last-second Pacioretty goal.
All the Canadiens need is one win for confidence to build in their locker room and doubt to creep into the Lightning’s. Granted, that’s all they can realistically dream about at this stage, a win in Game 4, because the ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup seems so far away. However, with the pressure effectively all on the Lightning to close this series out, that can work to the Canadiens’ advantage to get on the board in this series, at which point a 3-1 deficit seems significantly less insurmountable considering what the Canadiens have already accomplished this postseason.
It’s not going to be easy. Winning the Stanley Cup isn’t meant to be, but it should at least be easier to envision considering that’s what at stake. Far away or not, the Canadiens still haven’t been this close since they last won it all in 1993. There aren’t any other opponents to go through. The Lightning are it. That should count for something, even if the Lightning themselves seem insurmountable as opponents, even if only based on their history against the Canadiens, including a 4-0 sweep during the 2019-20 regular season.
The Lightning also swept the Canadiens the first time the two sides met in the teams’ collective playoff history, ultimately winning the Cup in 2004. Little did each side know it would set the tone for each of their playoff meetings to come. Even if it’s hard to believe the Canadiens can come back here, it’s very much conceivable they don’t want history to repeat itself, in the sense that they want to prove themselves with at least one win. If they do, look out. True, the Canadiens technically don’t want history to repeat itself relative to 2015 either, but it’s what they have to look to for inspiration that it can be done.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to cover the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.