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Morning After Thoughts: Historial context is important, Game 1 wasn’t a huge blowout and the Lightning still have a long way to go

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Winning Game 1 doesn’t secure a Stanley Cup.

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It took the Lightning 29 years and four tries to win a Game 1 in the Stanley Cup Final. A funny anecdote, to be sure, but also a reminder that history isn’t an indicator of future success. Quite a few media folks talked about the Montreal Canadiens history and how they lost Game 1 of their last trip to the Final before ultimately winning it all, yet these words are entirely devoid of context — context that is too easily forgotten when writers try to find a link to the past in everything.

[Begin rant]

Sports history is an interesting and overemphasized facet of sportswriting. If there were a link to the past in everything, the Canadiens wouldn’t be on a 28-year Cup drought. The Lightning would have never won a Stanley Cup. The list can go on, but history should be viewed through the lens of a current core. Does the Lightning’s failures of decades past influence them now? Of course not; this core has its own history that affects them, not history from 20 years ago.

Our media’s propensity to compare current teams' predicaments with teams decades in the past is farcical. The sport is different, the teams are different, the entire flow of the game is different. The only history we should focus on is recent history centered around the current cores. However, I can’t deny the allure of romanticizing decades-old sports history; it’s a dopamine rush that can be utilized in any manner to fit one’s narrative, and is a way to steer a fanbase’s mindset into a more optimistic perspective. A tool for coaches to use to keep their players focused and determined.

[End rant]

That historically based optimism, focus, and determination is exactly what Montreal wants to feed off of after Tampa Bay picked them apart in Game 1’s 5-1 Lightning victory.

The final score depicts a rather lopsided blowout, but this game was closer than the boxscore shows. According to Natural Stat Trick, at 5v5, the Lightning led in most categories; shots 23-17, high danger scoring chances 8-7, expected goals at 53%, and actual goals 4-1. They trailed in shot attempts 44-37 and overall scoring chances 27-23, but that also obscures the reality that the Lightning gave Montreal next to nothing in Game 1.

Montreal out-attempted Tampa Bay 17-5 in the third period (the only period Montreal lead in attempts), but they only managed four shots on goal—the same as the Lightning. The Canadiens had four high danger scoring chances in the third period, but none materialized into anything. They controlled the expected goals battle at 73% in the final period, but reality showed a team that struggled to put consistent pressure on Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning, 5v5 Heat Map
Natural Stat Trick, www.naturalstattrick.com

What the Lightning did so well in Game 1 was limit Montreal’s ability to cut into the middle of the ice, forecheck their defense into mistakes, and take away Carey Price’s eyes. Two of the first three Tampa Bay goals came with traffic in front of the net. They also benefitted from some helpful deflections, but I believe that teams make their own luck based on how they play. The better you play, the luckier you normally get.

Montreal will say all the right things about Game 1, they beat themselves, they’ll be better, and they aren’t finished. They have every right to believe that, and they certainly weren’t as sharp as expected in the opening game, but the Lightning wasn’t even at their best last night.

I thought for two of the periods we didn’t really give them much,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “A lot of it I liked, obviously. But there’s definitely more room for improvement.”

The Lightning got careless at certain junctures of the game. Up until Ben Chiarot’s double deflection goal (that went off two Lightning players), Montreal had done little to generate offense; however, after a weak attempt at dumping the puck from the neutral zone by Mikhail Sergachev saw Shea Weber knock it out of the air and push play back into the Lightning zone, Montreal finally managed to look dangerous. The in-close chances didn’t go in, but Chiarot’s point shot managed to find a way, and suddenly it was a one-goal game.

This is where historical context can be applied. In years past, this Lightning core would start to tighten up, grip their sticks, and overthink plays. That changed after winning the Stanley Cup last year. There’s a belief and understanding from Tampa Bay’s side that if they keep doing what they know wins hockey games, they’ll be fine.

“We’ve learned from past mistakes where we’ve sat back a little bit,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “I thought that second period, not counting the last five minutes, I thought we had a really great period. We let them get back in the game a little bit, letting one in. We just talked. We had a one-goal lead going into the third just like we did in Game 7 the other night, ‘Let’s attack. Let’s go. Let’s keep the pressure on.’ I thought we did a really good job of that.”

Process over outcome is something Cooper has tried to instill in Tampa Bay, and it fully sunk in last year. This year, the Lightning are looking to perfect it.

“We have a game plan, and we have a recipe,” Stamkos said. “If we go out there and do the right things, we’re going to get rewarded for it. And we have so far.”

Again, we circle back to recent history, not decades-old history, as a gauge for measuring how this series will pan out. The Lightning has been here before, endured heartache at the worst moments, and learned from those situations. As skilled as they are on paper, that isn’t going to win this series over Montreal. Their belief and understanding of the moment will be the X-factor for them when things don’t go their way.

In Game 1, they executed well enough, but they know they can be better. If the Lightning wants to etch their place in NHL history, they’ll need to elevate their play even more to take down a Montreal team that isn’t going to lay down.

Extra Thoughts

  • There was much talk about ‘unstoppable force versus immovable object’ centered around Tampa Bay’s power-play and Montreal’s penalty kill. Here’s the issue, Montreal’s penalty kill is Carey Price carrying the Canadiens (because Carey Price is a brilliant goaltender) and facing previous power-plays that were either 1) too predictable, 2) doesn’t have enough weapons to pose a threat, or 3) ineffective. The Lightning can be too predictable at times, but they have weapons all over the ice for Montreal to deal with. This isn’t the Toronto Maple Leafs who direct all their shooting to Auston Matthews. This isn’t the Winnipeg Jets without Mark Scheifele. This isn’t the Vegas Golden Knights trotting out a mediocre power-play.

This is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who has roasted every single team in the postseason with their power-play. It’s an entirely different animal altogether. Stamkos’ late power-play goal put an end to Montreal’s streak of 32 consecutive penalty kills. It also showcased how Tampa Bay doesn’t need a great look to score. Stamkos’ goal was at a low angle, and it still got past Price (who got quite a lot of it before it got behind him). If Montreal’s game plan is to be aggressive, they might want to revisit Carolina’s vaunted ‘power-kill’ from the second round and see how that ended. There is one way to neutralize Tampa Bay’s power-play effectively; do not allow them to get set up by disrupting their zone entries. We’ll see if Montreal can do that consistently this series

  • If Game 7 against the New York Islanders saw Nikita Kucherov looking noticeably hampered, then Game 1 against Montreal was the complete opposite. Kucherov was all over the ice, disrupting plays and feeding deft passes that the Canadiens couldn’t keep up with. He also is still not talked about enough.

He was criminally underrated last postseason in Conn Smythe voting, and he is still not considered the front runner. He has 30 points in 19 games—30! That’s seven ahead of Brayden Point’s 23. I know we’re all about Point and the goal-scoring, but folks, roughly half of those goals don’t happen without Kucherov. He is critical to Tampa Bay’s offense.

  • More than anything else, I felt Montreal couldn’t keep up with Tampa Bay in Game 1. Not in terms of skating, but in terms of puck movement and decision making. The Canadiens aren’t used to a team that moves the puck as quickly and effectively as the Lightning. The Maple Leafs were the closest comparison, and they’re not close enough in terms of execution and quickness to really be considered comparable. Fully expect Montreal to simplify their approach to make easier reads, but it was clear that Tampa Bay forced Montreal to play their game.