They have been controlled, contained and accurate.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are mercilessly making their way to another Stanley Cup.
Every mistake by the Montreal Canadiens seems to end up in their net and they just saw their margin of error reduced to zero by falling on a 0-3 hole in the Stanley Cup final. The Lightning simply seems too strong, too unshakable, too in control.
They hoisted the Cup inside the Edmonton bubble on September 28 and just 280 days later they will have a chance to do it again at the Bell Center when Game 4 is played on Monday night.
“Last year, the feeling you get is like the first day of school. That’s how it was that year,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “This year, it almost feels like it’s the last day of school. No we know what our team will be like next year, if it will be united again.
“There are some crazy circumstances that had to happen for this team to stick together and I know these guys get it and they know it and they are very aware of what they can cement if they can somehow get one more win.
“It has been amazing to be a part of this.”
Perhaps that comes with a laser-like approach. A team that lost a Cup final plus two game 7s in the Eastern Conference final knows it won’t be this close to the top forever. The opportunities are diminishing.
The story of why this group is one win away from joining the Pittsburgh Penguins as the only repeat NHL champions in the past two decades runs deeper than talent. They have superstars, yes, but they have unlocked something that allows them to ensure that incomplete performances like the one they had in Game 2 of this series are not repeated.
On Friday, they marched into a city brimming with excitement and anticipation, and pounced on their opponent.
They converted a Canadiens penalty on ice and a puck on the glass into a 2-0 lead before the game was four minutes out.
They then scored twice more in the first 3:33 of the second period en route to a comfortable 6-3 victory.
They have not yet allowed Montreal to have an advantage in this series. The cumulative score is 13-5.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has surpassed Carey Price, Montreal has found no answers for Nikita Kucherov and even players like Jan Rutta and Tyler Johnson are allowing Lightning to get the best finish of the depth battle.
“I know how much fun it was last year when we won, so you want to do it again,” said Johnson, who scored twice. “I don’t know how many chances you’re going to get. Every time you get that close, you really feel it.” I think winning last year makes you even want to win more.
“I think everyone feels that way and we are very excited.”
At this stage, your victory feels inevitable.
The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team in NHL history to erase a 3-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup final. And the Lightning haven’t lost back-to-back playoff games since 2019, let alone dropped four in a row.
Kucherov is basically assured of becoming the first player since Mario Lemieux in 1991 and 1992 to lead the playoffs in scoring for two years in a row. He has 32 points after a goal and an assist on Friday.
It was his hip surgery in December, and his subsequent placement on long-term injured reserve, that allowed general manager Julien BriseBois to get back on track with just a couple of losses on the roster. That’s what Cooper was referring to when he mentioned the uncertainty on the roster following last year’s six-game Cup Final victory over the Dallas Stars.
Taking a step back, the success they are now enjoying is the culmination of a seven-year build in which they have won more and scored more than any other NHL team. They endured tough defeats along the way, none worse than a first-round sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019 that prompted a shift in focus.
“Let’s be honest: we changed the makeup of our team,” Cooper said. “We did that, we got a little braver and then the skill guys in quotes, they changed their games to a winning formula too, a winning way to play, sometimes not the most flashy way. And when they started to get rewarded for that, they didn’t cheat and said ‘OK, well, we’ve done it, it’s fine, let’s get back to the way it was.’ Not.
Individual accolades were put aside. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it is the truth and they are all going in the same direction. It’s amazing to hear in the bank, for example, like four years ago compared to today, what is said and how everyone talks. “
That set the stage for what we saw on Friday night. They were better prepared to handle the moment and take care of business than the Canadiens.
A couple of turnovers turned into goals scored in transition. His only power play resulted in a big hit from Victor Hedman.
And they never allowed Montreal to have much traction or life.
The Lightning were in control as they took complete control of another championship series. A special moment now awaits a special group.
“It has been wonderful to watch. And watch this team grow, ”Cooper said. “It took us a while, but it’s starting to pay off some dividends.”