Lightning absorb Canadiens' best to claim 2-0 series lead in Stanley Cup Final

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TAMPA, FL - JUNE 30: Blake Coleman #20 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates his goal with teammates against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period of Game Two of the Stanley Cup Final of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on June 30, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)
Blake Coleman #20 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates his back-breaking goal at the end of the second period. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

A considerably improved performance from the Montreal Canadiens wasn't enough in Game 2.

The Tampa Bay Lightning now lead the Stanley Cup Final 2-0 following a 3-1 victory over Montreal on Wednesday. Anthony Cirelli, Blake Coleman and Ondrej Palat found the back of the net for the Lightning, while Nick Suzuki claimed the solo marker for the Canadiens.

Andrei Vasilevskiy continued his tour de force, making 42 saves and holding an opponent to one or fewer goals for the 10th time in 20 starts this postseason. Carey Price countered with 20 stops.

Here's what happened in Game 2:

High-end utility

Montreal is experiencing many new things in this championship run-in with the Lightning. One of which is an elite utility line that can moonlight as just about anything when the situation cals for it.

The Lightning's third line of Yanni Gourde, Coleman and Barclay Goodrow has been as influential as any other unit in the series so far. And after serving as the wrench in the line-match plans for Montreal in Game 1, the combination produced the momentum-shifting moment in Game 2, laying the groundwork for the Lightning victory.

It was a stunning last-second buzzer beater from Coleman, borne out of a conscious and collective decision to finish a shift, and created against the Montreal defensive triumvirate of Phillip Danault, Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot. The play not only turned the game around, but also provided the Lightning with the advantage they would carry through until the final buzzer. 

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Goodrow made a fantastic play on the demoralizing goal, but it's worth keeping an eye on Coleman throughout. He takes a run at Danault when he could easily breeze through until the final horn, and then chooses a hard, direct line to the net, using every inch of the distance travelled to knock in the goal that spoiled what had been Montreal's best period of the six played to this point. 

Combined, Gourde, Coleman and Goodrow have just 20 points in the club's 20 postseason games, but it seems like it's no coincidence that the Lightning haven't lost a postseason series since one of the league's most industrious line combinations was installed underneath the ultra-skilled groups in Jon Cooper's lineup.

Montreal rebounds

After Game 1, it must have been a struggle for Luke Richardson and Dominique Ducharme to identify positives in their post-game Zoom meeting. But on the heels of Game 2, I doubt the Montreal coaches encounter the same issue — even if the hole they sit in has become a little deeper after tonight.

Montreal was, quite clearly, the better team in Game 2. Did it hit a quota of self-sabotaging mistakes? Yes. Did it break through offensively? No. However, from minute to minute, shift to shift, and period to period, the Canadiens substantially improved their performance, making progress in the series. 

It's the first time they have fallen down 2-0 in these playoffs, but in series victories over Toronto and Vegas on the path to this moment, it took time for the Canadiens to put the puzzle together. It's very possible that time runs out, and the Lightning prove to be an opponent they can't solve over the course of a seven-game series, but the Canadiens now have something to build on.

At the individual level, Nick Suzuki has that in spades. 

After struggling in Game 1, handily losing the battle against the Tampa top line and finishing minus-three, Suzuki was one of the best players on the ice. He registered the lone Montreal goal, but the flukey marker was one of the least impressive moments from his overall outing. At one point, his eight shots were as many as the Lightning had posted. He finished with nine, in addition to six total scoring chances and four high-danger looks — numbers which led all skaters. He improved dramatically in the faceoff circle. His line out-played Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov in its head-to-head matchup. 

Ducharme should still endeavour to create more favourable matchups for Suzuki when he returns to the bench from his COVID-19 absence in Game 3, because the Habs clearly need more offense (and more from Suzuki's wingman, Cole Caufield), but Suzuki could be the key for Montreal in the series, having shown an ability to halt the downhill running from Point and Kucherov. 

Still, there's room to improve

If Montreal has practiced its 4-on-3 power play, we have to question the decision-making there. 

Before Cirelli opened the scoring for the Lightning, Montreal had a wonderful opportunity to snatch its first lead of the series, earning a rare 4-on-3 opportunity in the first period. It was quickly squandered, with Richardson keeping the team's most dynamic offensive player, Caufield, on the bench for it, instead selecting an uninspired two-forward, two-defender alignment with Suzuki, Weber, Tyler Toffoli and Erik Gustafsson.

The head-scratching decision produced an unthreatening, uninspired special teams sequence, and one that looked like it hadn't even been practiced. It's possible, by the way, that it hasn't been worked on much, given that Ducharme took over in the midst of the NHL's crushed-can COVID-19 schedule, which allowed for little room to work on tactics on practice ice.

Elsewhere, the mistakes remain rampant. The Canadiens erected a screen in front of Price on the Cirelli goal and their best defensive players combined to cough up the second, but nothing compares to the egregious error from Joel Edmundson on the third goal.

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Despite the improved performance, it has to be squeaky-clean against Tampa, and it hasn't been.

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