Is there a better defense corps in the NHL than the Lightning’s?
I don’t mean a shutdown pair or a top four. I’m talking one through six, at both ends of the ice.
The Lightning blueliners took control of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final right from the start, imposing their will on the Canadiens physically, keeping pucks to the outside and spearheading the offense with two quick, tone-setting goals.
Largely due to their efforts Friday in Montreal, Tampa Bay finds itself one victory from repeating as Cup champion.
Victor Hedman, the Conn Smythe winner during last season’s Cup run, was back at the forefront with a power-play goal and an assist. Jan Rutta scored the opening goal, and Erik Cernak and David Savard had assists.
Cernak, recognizing a Montreal line change, sprung Ondrej Palat on a breakaway with a heady stretch pass to help set up Nikita Kucherov’s second-period goal. Ryan McDonagh teamed with forward Patrick Maroon and Savard to get the puck quickly up the ice to Mathieu Joseph on the first of Tyler Johnson’s two goals.
And those were their offensive contributions.
Defensively, the six pushed everything to the outside, keeping Montreal’s forwards out of the high-scoring areas and making things easier on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
They blocked shots down low (eight, led by three from Savard and Mikhail Sergachev) and cleared pucks from the front of the net, preventing second-chance opportunities. They were physical throughout, with 10 hits (four from Cernak), never more so than when Savard slammed Corey Perry hard into the end boards in the second period.
Heavy hitters with great sticks who squeeze you up against the boards, knock you off the puck and make it difficult to get to the net, they’re no fun to play against. Which is a big reason Tampa Bay has allowed just five goals in the first three games of the series, an average of 1.7 per game.
That’s how you defend a Stanley Cup.
Here’s how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in their 6-3 win in Game 3:
Tale of two halves
The Lightning came out like gangbusters in the first period, scoring twice in the first 3-1/2 minutes, both by defensemen.
Rutta scored from the right point through a moving screen from Kucherov less than two minutes into the game, and Hedman, left wide open at the center point, fired a shot past goaltender Carey Price for a power-play goal just over a minute and a half later.
Before the fans at Bell Centre had settled into their seats, the Lightning had a two-goal lead and all of the momentum.
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At that point, Canadiens interim coach Dominique Ducharme, behind the bench for the first time in the series after spending 14 days in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus, used his one timeout. Montreal settled down, rediscovered its game and, shortly thereafter, got back into it.
Cole Caufield beat Vasilevskiy off the rush with a shot from the high slot, but the puck clanged off the left post.
Not long afterward, Phillip Danault put the Canadiens on the board with a shot off the same post and into the net from the left circle with Brendan Gallagher driving hard to the net.
Just like that, the Canadiens, who outshot the Lighting 17-12 in the period, had new life.
It didn’t last long.
In a near repeat of the first period, Kucherov and Johnson scored in the opening 3-1/2 minutes of the second period to extend the Lightning’s lead to 4-1.
Kucherov scored backhanded off a pass through the crease from Palat at 1:40. Less than two minutes later, a Joseph shot from the left circle went off his own skate to Johnson in the slot, and he swept it into the net from his backhand.
Kucherov nearly scored a second time in the period, but Price made a spectacular right to left save to stop his wraparound attempt.
The pushback came late in the period this time, as Nick Suzuki scored off an end-to-end rush with less than two minutes remaining to make it 4-2.
That was as close as Montreal would get.
Playing to his strengths
Cooper made a lineup change late in Game 2 that might have gone unnoticed at the time but paid huge dividends in Game 3.
Cooper moved Johnson, a natural center, from the second line, where he was playing on the left wing with Alex Killorn out of the lineup, back to the fourth line between Maroon and Joseph.
The change allowed Johnson to take better advantage of his creativity, and it was on full display as he put four shots on goal, scoring twice, in just over nine minutes of ice time. He nearly picked up an assist, as well, as Maroon hit the post after receiving a Johnson pass in the slot early in the third period.
Johnson’s second goal was sheer willpower, as he intercepted an Erik Gustafsson pass in the neutral zone, beat two Canadiens players to the net and shot from the slot. Price made the first save, but Johnson beat Gustafsson to the rebound, scoring on the backhand.
After the game, Cooper, Johnson’s only pro coach, gave him the ultimate compliment, calling the ninth-year veteran the “ultimate team player.”
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