Less than a year later, Tampa Bay is a win away from finishing a sweep of the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals, with Game 4 set for Monday night at Bell Centre in Montreal. The Lightning has been the dominant team for three games, and Tampa is ready to celebrate another title to go with last year’s Lightning triumph and the Buccaneers’ run to a Super Bowl win in February.
“I know how fun it was last year when we won, so you want to do that again,” said center Tyler Johnson, who scored twice in the Lightning’s 6-3 win in Game 3 on Friday. “Don’t know how many chances you’re going to get. Anytime you get this close, you really feel it. I think winning last year makes you even want to win it more.”
Tampa Bay would be the second team, joining the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017, to win consecutive titles since the Detroit Red Wings went back-to-back in 1997 and 1998. The Lightning also is a win from the first finals sweep since Detroit blanked the Washington Capitals in 1998.
Only four teams in NHL history have come back from a 3-0 playoff series deficit. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team to do it in the finals, when they beat Detroit in 1942. If Montreal is to dig itself out of this hole, it will need to get an improved performance from goaltender Carey Price and to find a way to break through Tampa Bay’s tight defense.
“We’ve showed that we don’t shy away from challenges,” Canadiens Coach Dominique Ducharme said. “And we won’t again.”
Victor Hedman, last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, said he doesn’t need the extra incentive of defending the title; just claiming the Stanley Cup is motivation enough. The defenseman has two goals and 16 assists in 21 postseason games.
“What we did in the bubble last year was very special, and you want to relive that moment. At the end of the day, we’re not there yet. We have to win one more game. We’ve put ourselves in good position, obviously, but the fourth one is the hardest to get,” Hedman said. “... We have more work to do, and we are not satisfied.”
Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, a Conn Smythe candidate this year, has proved his worth throughout the postseason. The Russian has a 1.94 goals against average and a .938 save percentage in 21 games. In the finals, he has allowed five goals and has a .948 save percentage.
Also in the MVP mix: winger Nikita Kucherov. He has 32 playoff points on eight goals and 24 assists. Over the past two postseasons, he has 66 points; that is tied with Wayne Gretzky (in 1985 and 1986) for the fifth most over consecutive playoff runs in NHL history.
“I think the best part about Kuch these last couple years is maybe if he doesn’t the odd night contribute he’s got a great attitude as far as keeping the energy up on the bench, trying to contribute in different ways,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We expect a lot out of him and he expects a lot out of himself, and he’s going to bring it most nights. It’s fun to see him really wanting to win on an elite level right now.”
Tampa Bay has plenty of motivation as it is, but there’s also this: Forward Pat Maroon is one victory from his third straight Stanley Cup after winning in 2018-19 with the St. Louis Blues and last year with the Lightning. McDonagh said the Lightning appreciates the “savviness” he brings to the team.
“It rubs off on guys and brings a certain level of confidence — not over the top, but just enough to know that, you know, if you do the right things, you play to your team’s structure, you have a chance to win every night,” McDonagh said. “He keeps our group pulling in the same direction.”
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