The Lightning scored late in the third period to tie the game at 2-2 but Montreal forward Josh Anderson ended the game with a goal that postponed Tampa’s Stanley Cup celebration.
The Montreal Canadiens did not win the first game of the Stanley Cup finals, or the second, or the third, and as the fourth careered toward overtime on Monday night a familiar feeling settled in their dressing room.
“We’ve just kind of accepted the fact that it’s never going to be easy here,” forward Brendan Gallagher said.
After blowing two leads, and after watching three Tampa Bay shots strike the post, and after muzzling the league’s best power-play for four minutes when ceding a goal would end the series and their season, the Canadiens somehow found themselves raising their sticks and saluting the crowd at Bell Centre in Montreal.
The winning goal in their 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, scored by Josh Anderson 3 minutes 57 seconds into the extra period, delayed the visitors’ coronation until at least Wednesday, when Game 5 is played in Tampa, Fla., but more than that it served as an article of validation.
“Look at the regular season, look at things that happened in the playoffs with us — there’s nothing normal,” interim coach Dominique Ducharme said earlier in the series. “We just get into a situation that is again unusual but, you know, we’ve showed that we don’t shy away from challenges and we won’t again.”
Validation in the bold lineup decisions of Ducharme, whose line shuffling and roster management produced all three goals. In the performance of goalie Carey Price, who, after asserting Friday night that he hadn’t played well enough, saved 32 of 34 shots in his best game of the series. And in the over all depth and resilience of a team that finished 18th among 31 teams, that lost eight more games than it won, but that summoned a ferocious penalty kill on five separate occasions Monday night, none more vital than its effort after Shea Weber’s stick struck Ondrej Palat’s face with 1:01 remaining in regulation.
“There was no question we were going to kill that penalty for our captain,” Ducharme said in French afterward.
Montreal’s penalty kill has been so outstanding these playoffs that it has scored nearly as many times short-handed (four) as power-play goals allowed (five). The double minor gave the Lightning a four-minute power play, and Price saved all four shots, including Brayden Point’s backhander from in close.
“We had ample chances to put this one away and we didn’t,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said. “Eventually, if you let a team hang around long enough, they may get you and tonight they did.”
As Tampa Bay trampled the Canadiens in Game 1 and outlasted them in Game 2, they resisted the temptation to make personnel changes, preferring to focus on themselves. But desperation spurs action.
In an attempt to promote more offense, Ducharme replaced forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi with Jake Evans and jumbled Montreal’s lines, moving Anderson to a line centered by Nick Suzuki to add a net-front presence and more speed. Ducharme also benched Montreal’s entire third defensive pairing, drawing in Brett Kulak and rookie Alexander Romanov, whom Ducharme called more dynamic skaters, in place of Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson.
Those moves proved prescient almost 16 minutes into the first period, when after a slow start — just one shot to that point for Montreal — the Canadiens took their first lead of the series, on a sequence that began with Kulak deftly avoiding pressure in his own zone and ended with Suzuki whipping a nifty backhand pass through the crease to a cutting Anderson.
It was Romanov — who hadn’t played since Game 1 in the previous round against Vegas — who snapped a 1-1 tie 8:48 into the second, his wrist shot from the point whistling through an Artturi Lehkonen screen and past Andrei Vasilevskiy. And it was Anderson again, after Patrick Maroon converted a two-on-one with 6:12 left in regulation, who ensured that Montreal would need the luggage players packed before the game.
Anderson tore down the left wing, outmuscled defenseman Jan Rutta and drove to the net, flicking a backhand pass toward the crease. Cole Caufield swiped at the puck, which deflected off Yanni Gourde’s stick right to Anderson, who, falling as he shot it, never saw it go in.
“I just looked at the referee’s hands and saw a bunch of people coming to me,” Anderson said.
Those people were all clad in bleu, blanc et rouge, reveling in avoiding what would have been the first sweep in the Cup finals since 1998 and winning what they hope was not the final game of this weird season at Bell Centre.
Only four teams in N.H.L. history have overcome three-games-to-none deficits, and just one — the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs — did so in the finals. No team clings to its history like the Canadiens — Yvan Cournoyer, Guy LaFleur and Patrick Roy, legends all — attended Monday’s game, and though they might not have won the first or second or third game of this series, at least now they get to play a fifth.