TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Lightning talk often about their game plan, having a recipe for success, and understanding from experience that the rewards are great when they stick with it.
Case in point, their 5-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on Monday.
It was textbook execution of a game plan designed specifically to beat Carey Price and the Canadiens, the ideal way to take the lead in the best-of-7 series against a goalie and a team that for three rounds had limited or completely shut down some of the top players in the NHL.
“When you have that feeling in your belly that winning feels good and then when you know why you’re winning you tend to kind of stay with it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Our guys have done a really good job with that the last couple of years. Hasn’t been without some setbacks, but you just keep preaching to the guys you’re not going to win a series in one night. That’s not how it goes. Curveballs and sliders and fastballs, they’re all thrown at you at different times, but if you just keep being consistent with your game, we trust that good things will happen.”
The Lightning scored goals on redirections and deflections, on shots that went in off of the opponent, on shots off clean face-off wins and on the power play, of which they are the best in the business at doing.
They got big saves from goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (18 on 19 shots), but they followed the plan of not relying on their Vezina Trophy finalist to win it for them.
They grinded, always and relentlessly. They forechecked, got pucks in deep, cycled, won battles and activated their defensemen to join the rush, to stay on top of the Canadiens forwards and to put them on their heels, push them back instead of the other way around.
“Coach is telling us what to do and we’re doing a [heck] of a job going out there and doing it,” forward Nikita Kucherov said.
They did for the majority of the first two periods, getting goals from defenseman Erik Cernak on a redirection off the rush at 6:19 of the first and forward Yanni Gourde on a deflection in front of the net to take a 2-0 lead at 5:47 of the second.
The Canadiens pushed back, as the Lightning expected, and made it 2-1 on a goal from defenseman Ben Chiarot at 17:40 that pinballed off Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli and defenseman Ryan McDonagh before finding the back of the net.
But the Lightning didn’t settle or sit back when they took a 2-1 lead into the third period.
“We’ve learned from past mistakes where we’ve sat back a little bit,” forward Steven Stamkos said. “We just talked, we’ve got a one goal lead going into the third, just like we did in Game 7 (against the New York Islanders) the other night, let’s attack, let’s go, let’s keep the pressure on.”
The big boys took over, with Kucherov scoring twice, at 2:00 and 11:25, and Stamkos ending the Canadiens’ streak of 32 straight penalty kills with a power-play goal at 18:50.
The Lightning scored three goals on seven shots in the final 20 minutes.
Montreal had one shot on goal in the first 15 and a half minutes of the period, four after the Lightning had built a 4-1 lead.
“When we’re on top of our game like that we’re tough to beat,” Stamkos said. “I thought we did that for most of the game.”
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But like any championship team, the Lightning feel they can and must be better in Game 2 here on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
They found flaws in their game in the second period, when Vasilevskiy faced nine shots and stopped eight. Stamkos said the Lightning didn’t like how they closed the period, letting Montreal get within one even though it came on a double deflection.
“I thought we escaped the second,” Cooper said. “They pushed on us in some areas and ‘Vasy’ had to make some big time saves for us to keep us in it. Right there we have some improvement in our game that we need.
“I think we have more to give. A team that’s lost Game 1 is definitely going to give us a push and we need to be better than we were tonight to take Game 2.”
The Lightning will have a game plan for it.
Stick with it again and they could go close to within two wins from being back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
“I’ll never sit here and say if we play really well we’re going to win every game, that’s not the way it works,” Cooper said. “We take tonight, we bottle it up. We’re happy we won, and we move onto the next one, and hopefully we can have the same consistent effort.”