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Dominique Ducharme was back from COVID-19 isolation, behind the bench, and had the ability to make the final change on Friday night. The Habs were determined to get back into the series, and the fans were backing them loud and clear, both inside and outside the Bell Centre.

But it was not enough. The Tampa Bay Lightning were simply too strong, too fast, and too skilled for the Canadiens to be able to wrest the series from them. With a clear-cut 6-3 win, Tampa Bay now has a 3-0 stranglehold on the Stanley Cup Final.

Once Again, Not the First

The home crowd of 3,500 in the Bell Centre made far more noise than one would expect based on just the number of people. Unfortunately, the exuberance of the crowd was dampened early as Tampa Bay applied pressure in the opening minutes.

As the Lightning hemmed the Habs in their zone, Josh Anderson had a few chances to clear but could not gain control of the puck. Jon Merrill did, but had too much on the shot, icing the puck. Anderson hustled for it, but the linesman called the icing before the puck reached the end zone.

On the ensuing faceoff, Tampa gained control immediately, much like Vegas’ set plays in the last series. Ondrej Palat got the puck to Jan Rutta at the right point, with the front of the net buzzing with white and red sweaters. Rutta got his shot up high, and as the puck navigated its way past Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov, Carey Price had little visibility of where it was coming from or where it was going. First blood to Tampa again, then, just under two minutes into the game.

Tampa didn’t let up after that, either. A minute after that, Eric Staal tried to clear the zone by lobbing the puck to the centre ice but rushed the shot, and it ended up clearing the glass for an automatic delay-of-game penalty. It took only 33 seconds this time for Victor Hedman to put the puck under Price’s glove for a commanding 2-0 lead.

Dominique Ducharme took the opportunity to call a timeout, calm down the team and set them in the right direction. And it seemed to work, as the Habs took to skating and attacking with renewed energy.

The crowd thought it had seen Montreal’s first goal at the seven-and-a-half-minute mark as Cole Caufield broke in for a scoring chance, but the puck hit the inside of the left post and bounced out just clear of the other post.

A minute later, though, Phillip Danault snatched a loose puck in front of Price and broke out with Brendan Gallagher in tow. David Savard took away the pass option, but Danault outplayed former Hab Mikhail Sergachev and lifted the puck high on Andrei Vasilievskiy’s glove side to bring the Habs within one.

Montreal’s work showed in a 15-11 edge in shots but the scoring chances were in Tampa’s favour – as was the stat that really matters, with the Habs being outscored two goals to one. Still, not a bad place to be after that horrid start to the game.

Déjà vu a Second Time

As the teams hit the ice for the second period, Tampa Bay was once again more ready for action, and it showed on the scoreboard. Again.

This time the Canadiens got caught on a bad line change. Anthony Cirelli stripped the puck from Artturi Lehkonen in the Tampa Bay zone and tapped it over to Erik Cernak, who forwarded it to Ondrej Palat, who was ready at the Montreal blue line.

There were no Habs defenders in sight and the only defensive attempt was a heroic skate by Joel Armia but he was out of his element. Palat tipped the puck over to the other side to Nikita Kucherov who made no mistake in lifting the puck over a sliding Price.

Less than two minutes later, Jeff Petry coughed up the puck in the Tampa zone, allowing Mathieu Joseph and Tyler Johnson to break out. Erik Gustafsson was able to block the pass while Armia tried to harass Joseph. Price made a pad save on Joseph’s low shot, but the puck came back out to Joseph, deflected off his skate and ended up on Johnson’s stick. The veteran forward made no mistake to put up the fourth Lightning goal.

The Bleu Blanc et Rouge did not lose their motivation, though, and the Habs peppered Vasilevskiy with shots, sometimes even dangerous one, but it was all for nought as Vasilevskiy turned away anything that had not been blocked by the Tampa defenders.

But, with less than two minutes on the clock, Suzuki and Cole Caufield broke out of the Montreal zone on a relatively innocuous-looking play, with Point pressuring Suzuki. The young centre managed to get a shot off, though, albeit from a bad angle. Vasilevskiy appeared to be confused by the shot, though, and the puck slipped in under his right pad to bring the Habs back into the game.

In the period, the Habs were outshot 9-8 and Tampa again held the edge in scoring chances, though that was much closer than the first period.

Third Period Tells the Truth

The third period started much more tentatively than the first two but this time with the Habs holding the early edge.

Both teams had some chances: Rutta took another shot through traffic, but this time Price saw the shot coming and easily caught the pick in his trapper. Armia, at the other end of the ice, appeared to have a good opportunity for a dangerous shot on Vasilevskiy but fanned on the bouncing puck.

Gustafsson, who was getting the most ice time that he has seen in the 2021 playoffs, took a seeing-eye dog shot around the nine-minute mark, but Vasilevskiy saw through the screen and got his glove up to secure the puck. Gustafsson followed up with another shot after the ensuing faceoff, but the Tampa defenders cleared the rebound before any red sweaters could get to it.

As the clock ticked past the midway point of the third period, the Canadiens were taking more and more risks in trying to get to Vasilevskiy. This cost the Habs when Gustafsson misplayed the puck and fired it towards centre ice, putting it on Johnson’s stick. Johnson nodded his thanks to Gustafsson and took off for the Canadiens zone.  Price made the initial stop but left a bad rebound available and Johnson tapped it home.

Not a minute went by, though, before the Habs’ counterattack (with Price now on the bench) paid off with Corey Perry lifting the puck from the side of the net; he got it above Vasilevskiy’s shoulder and between his mask and the goal post. Down to a 5-3 score, then, for another faint hope for the Habs.

Just 50 seconds later, though, Barclay Goodrow stripped the puck from Caufield in the Montreal zone and fed it to Blake Coleman, who made no mistake sending it into the empty net for a definitive 6-3 score. The Habs would not manage to control the play enough after that to be able to pull Price a second time and the buzzer sounded with a third straight loss to the Lightning.

The shots total was 35-30 in Montreal’s favour but those numbers flattered the Habs as the scoring chances were clearly in Tampa’s favour.

HabsWorld Habs Three Stars

1st Star: Philip Danault: The veteran two-way centre finally scored his first goal of the 2021 playoffs and it came at an opportune time as the team was trying to get back into the game after giving up two early goals. Working with Gallagher and Lehkonen, the line had numerous opportunities, even if not many high-danger ones, and registered eight shots.

Stats: 1 goal, 1 point, +2, 3 shots, 5 hits, 15:40 TOI

2nd Star: Nick Suzuki: The young centre breathed some new life into the Habs’ game with Montreal’s second goal of the night. Working with Caufield, he had other good looks at scoring but could not convert them.

Stats: 1 goal, 1 point, +0, 2 shots, 1 hit, 20:41 TOI

3rd Star: Corey Perry: Perry’s goal brought the Habs back within two after Johnson’s marker. A valiant, fighting effort in the offensive zone to get into a shooting position, and then a precision shot to put it into the nearside corner of the net.

Stats: 1 goal, 1 point, -2, 2 shots, 1 block, 14:58 TOI

Honourable Mention: Cole Caufield: The rookie continued to impress and recorded a pretty shot on the inside of the goalpost. Working hard in both the offensive and defensive zones, Caufield looked plenty mature. He lost the puck for the final goal, but by the time that happened, the game was already lost in any case.

Stats: 1 assist, 1 point, +0, 1 shots, 1 hit, 1 block, 19:52 TOI