Are you superstitious about hockey?
Play along with the notion for a moment. If you concede that there’s one team upon which we can project a certain juju, it’s probably the Montreal Canadiens, hockey’s most storied franchise.
How else did Montreal survive Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final, in which overtime began with captain Shea Weber in the middle of serving a four-minute high-sticking penalty against a Tampa Bay Lightning team with an epically deadly power play?
How else could we explain the fact that, going into Game 4 Monday night, only one opposing team had ever clinched a championship on the road in Montreal against the Canadiens? The 1988-99 Calgary Flames were that exception. The other six teams to defeat Montreal in the final did so in their own rinks as the home teams. The 2020-21 Habs aren’t loaded with living legends like the dynastic teams of the 1950s and 1970s were, but there was simply no way they’d roll over and hand the Lightning the Cup at the Bell Centre. The Habs brought the fight in Game 4 with a 3-2 overtime victory and avoided becoming the first Stanley Cup sweep victim since the 1997-98 Washington Capitals.
Montreal did so thanks in part to a litany of roster changes courtesy of coach Dominique Ducharme, who technically altered 16.7 percent of his skater lineup before Game 4, with center Jake Evans coming in for Jesperi Kotkaniemi and blueliners Alexander Romanov and Brett Kulak replacing Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson. Ducharme also adjusted three of his four forward lines. His changes visibly impacted the game. The Habs took a 1-0 lead in the first period when center Nick Suzuki, their best forward in the series, waited out Tampa defenseman David Savard and fed new linemate Josh Anderson with a saucer pass for a tap-in. After right winger Barclay Goodrow tied the game for Tampa in the second, the go-ahead goal for the Habs at 8:48 of the third came from Romanov, whose long-distance wrist shot eluded screened Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The goal made Romanov the youngest Canadiens defenseman ever to score in the final.
The Lightning clawed back to tie the game late in the third with left winger Patrick Maroon finishing off a perfect saucer pass from Mathieu Joseph, and the defending champs began to smell blood – literally, as Weber’s high stick cut left winger Ondrej Palat and sent the Bolts to the power play with 1:01 left in the third. But Montreal’s dogged, pressure-oriented penalty kill survived regulation. With their captain watching helplessly in the box to open overtime, the Habs penalty killers continued to harass the Lightning power play, or the Lightning felt the sweaty-palmed jitters of knowing they were one goal away from the Cup, or a bit of both. They uncharacteristically struggled to get set up, and Habs killed the penalty off. Tampa finished the game 0 for 5 on the power play.
“Guys did a tremendous job on the PK, stayed aggressive, took over the options when they were set up, and we got rewarded,” Ducharme said.
And the ensuing momentum shift was enough. At 3:57 of overtime, Anderson stripped Lightning center Yanni Gourde to start a 2-on-1 rush, beat defenseman Jan Rutta to the net and centered the puck to right winger Cole Caufield. Anderson didn’t quit on the play, crept back toward the net and buried home a rebound. Voila, game over, series extended and a captain absolved.
“He’s our leader,” said Canadiens right winger Brendan Gallagher about Weber after the game. “You can’t ask for a better teammate, so the guys wanted to bear down, especially for him. We understand the situation we’re in – I think we would’ve killed it for anyone – but he’s been a rock for us since he’s come to our team. The physicality that he brings…that’s just what you expect from him every single night. He’s hard to play against, especially as these series go along. He’s a pain, so, happy to have him on our side.”
Tampa mayor Jane Castor delivered some of the strangest reverse-bulletin-board material in Stanley Cup final history Sunday when she suggested the Lightning “take it a little bit easy” on the Habs in Game 4 to extend the series and win the Cup at home at Amalie Arena in Game 5. She got step 1 of her wish. The Habs will take it, too. They were outshot 34-21 overall and outchanced 20-14 at 5-on-5, but a win is a win, just as it was for Tampa in Game 2 when the Habs controlled the play.
“We didn’t want to end it tonight in front of our fans” Anderson said. “We expected to go to Tampa (for Game 5). I think everybody in that locker room did.”