Fans are born nervous, of course. It’s why they’re fans.
And suddenly, how can a 3-1 lead feel so shaky?
The Tampa Bay Lightning gave their fans a reason to chew their fingernails Thursday night, losing a 6-2 bashing to the Montreal Canadiens. And suddenly, a big lead doesn’t feel so big, and a comfortable margin doesn’t feel so comfortable. Does it?
Yep, there the Bolts were, cruising along, on its way to a party, and it seemed that nothing could possibly go wrong. Why, Tampa Bay had won eight in a row against Montreal, and goaltender Carey Price looked mortal, and Tyler Johnson looked unstoppable. The Lightning won the close games. It won the lopsided games. It snatched games right out of the hands of the Habs.
But that’s how quickly things turn in the playoffs. And after its easy win Thursday night, things look possible for Montreal. Not probable. But possible.
The Canadiens, the only team that was better than the Lightning in the Eastern Conference this year, finally won its first game in the best-of-seven series Thursday night. Montreal chased Ben Bishop in the second period, and then it added three more goals against Andrei Vasilevskiy.
And suddenly, it might be this team that is talking to itself.
It was the second straight game the Canadiens have outplayed the Bolts, and now Montreal goes home. If it can win there, it then would have to come to Amalie to play the Bolts again, and if it wins that one, it faces a crucial Game Seven for the series.
OK, OK. Montreal still has to win three in a row to salvage this series, and this was only the first time in nine meetings this year that Montreal has won. In the history of the NHL, a team that was behind 3-0 has won a series only four times in 178 tries. So Montreal wouldn’t exactly be the favorite.
But after one win, you can at least see the path that Montreal would have to travel. It would have to win its home game Saturday night (and the Canadiens were 26-9-6 at home this year). After that, it would have to beat the Lightning at Amalie Arena (where Montreal outplayed the Bolts in both games.) And after that, Montreal would have to win a Game Seven at home with a three-game winning streak.
Again, it isn’t likely. But the direction is clear.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a reason to be nervous, there is this: Montreal has won the five-on-five play between the teams this series. It could have won three of the first four. In the last two games, the Habs have clearly had the edge.
“I don’t think we want to get too comfortable,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “But I’d rather be in our position than in their position. That’s the reality of it. We have a chance to win one hockey game and move on. No one said it was going to be easy.”
Most would have said, however, that it would be competitive. The Bolts stole Game Three despite being outplayed on their home ice, and afterward, they had said and repeated how desperate they had to play. That didn’t happen. Montreal jumped to a 5-0 lead and coasted to its victory.
Bishop, who had clearly outplayed Price in the first three games, never had a chance. Coach Jon Cooper pulled him after he had given up three goals on 14 shots. Vasilevskiy have up three on 25.
“It was a back-to-back,” Cooper said of pulling Bishop. “I sit there and look at the goals. (Max) Pacioretty’s got a breakaway, that’s a big-time shot. Even (Andrei) Markov…those aren’t his fault. That was a complete cluster in the D-zone. We just completely broke down and gave them an easy one. That’s not his fault. He’s played a lot of hockey. I thought maybe we’d get a spark out of it, but it definitely wasn’t because of Bishop’s play.”
For Montreal, there was no choice but to play well or to go home. They left no doubt that they wanted their season to continue. And so Montreal showed up with an extra bounce that the Bolts did not match.
“It’s a resilient team over there,” Stamkos said. “Their backs are against the wall. We stole one game, and we probably didn’t deserve to win. We definitely didn’t deserve it tonight, and we got what’s coming. We got to be better. We have to be sharper. We have to come willing to compete. We had too many passengers last couple of games.”
It comes down to this, really: The Lightning has the series advantage; the Canadiens have won the play. So who would you rather be? The team that is playing better, but has to win three? Or the team that has to gather itself enough to win one?
In other words, the Lightning still has the advantage. Perhaps it can win again in Montreal, where it won both playoff games this year. If not, perhaps it can come back home and avoid a third straight loss.
Either way, it is time for the Bolts to once again show their resiliency.
That, or they can spend months trying to explain how a series got away from them.