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Warning label: It’s only one game. But man, what a beatdown

John Romano | The Lightning looked impressive in a 5-1 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final against Montreal.
Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher (bottom, left wing Phillip Danault (24), Lightning defenseman David Savard and center Blake Coleman scuffle in the third period during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher (bottom, left wing Phillip Danault (24), Lightning defenseman David Savard and center Blake Coleman scuffle in the third period during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jun. 29
Updated Jun. 29

TAMPA — Is it too soon to talk about a three-peat?

Oh, I kid. The Canadiens will have an answer in this Stanley Cup final, perhaps as soon as Wednesday night.

But you’ve got to admit Tampa Bay’s performance in a 5-1 victory in Game 1 Monday night makes you ponder whether Montreal’s fairy-tale story is suddenly running short of pixie dust.

Forget the lopsided score and all the stats, here is what the Canadiens should be worried about:

It just seemed so effortless. Almost like a Monday night in December for the Lightning.

That historic Montreal penalty kill that had not given up a goal in 13 consecutive games?

Yeah, the Lightning scored on it.

Those big Montreal defensemen and hard-checking forwards who had held opponents to 1.92 goals per game over the last 13 postseason games?

Yeah, the Lightning torched them for five goals.

That feel-good story of a No. 16 seed upsetting every team in its path?

Didn’t feel so good north of the border Monday night.

“Tonight was just one,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The series is far from over.”

Absolutely true. The Lightning have jumped out to early leads in other rounds, then had brief stumbles on the way home.

And no matter how pedestrian the Canadiens were during the regular season, you cannot overlook their third-round victory against a strong Vegas team.

But this game had to be troubling for the Canadiens. The Lightning led for nearly 54 of the game’s 60 minutes, and had a two-goal lead or more for half the game.

The Lightning were more explosive than Florida in the first round of the postseason, and they ended up being more disciplined than New York in the third round.

Against Montreal?

They were just better. Much, much better.

Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81), defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27), center Brayden Point (21) and left wing Ondrej Palat (18) celebrate one of right wing Nikita Kucherov's goals during the third period.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81), defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27), center Brayden Point (21) and left wing Ondrej Palat (18) celebrate one of right wing Nikita Kucherov's goals during the third period. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Tampa Bay convincingly, methodically, almost casually, beat the snot out of the Canadiens.

“We try to focus on ourselves. We know the quality of opponent we have. They’re going to get their looks, they’re a great team, they’re here for a reason,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We have a game plan and we have a recipe. If we go out there and do the right things, we’re going to get rewarded for it. And we have so far.”

In the end, that’s why the Lightning are defending Stanley Cup champions and are now three victories away from repeating.

They are talented, obviously. You don’t win MVP, and Vezina and Norris trophies without elite players.

But last year, the Lightning also figured out that recipe for success. They learned to play with the scoreboard in mind instead of individual statistics. They got bigger on the blue line, and smarter and tougher on the offensive end.

Of course, they are going to lose games. Everybody does. But they can walk on the ice every single night knowing that they are probably the better team before the first whistle blows.

You want to know what was impressive in Game 1?

It wasn’t Nikita Kucherov’s two third-period goals. It wasn’t Stamkos getting a power-play goal in the final minutes. It wasn’t Andrei Vasilevskiy stopping 94.7 percent of the shots on net.

It was the postseason’s leading scorer playing defense.

The game was still scoreless in the first period when the Canadiens had a 3-on-2 rush. Lightning defensemen Erik Cernak and Ryan McDonagh were backpedaling and Montreal was setting up its offense when Brayden Point came flying into the picture and intercepted a pass.

Point quickly spun around, passed the puck into the neutral zone and, seconds later, Ondrej Palat set up Cernak for the game’s first score.

“Pointer is an unbelievable player,” Kucherov said. “He knows when and what to do … and he sees the ice to make those plays.”

Of course, this is not over. Of course, the Canadiens will adjust. Of course, the Lightning will make their own mistakes in the coming games.

But you get the feeling that if Tampa Bay plays to its potential, this series is already decided.

“This is the National Hockey League with the best players in the world. You can be beat on any night by any team. The players are that good,” Cooper said. “Consistency is the key. You have your plan, you stick with it, you consistently rock it. If you do that, we like our chances in games.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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