They are two organizations. One is on the verge of the ultimate achievement for the second successive year. The other, on the cusp of disappointment.
The Tampa Bay Lightning needs to win just once more on Monday to capture its second consecutive Stanley Cup. The Canadiens need to win four times, which while not impossible is unreasonable to expect. Montreal is 0-3 in the final round so far.
Win four? At this point, one seems improbable.
The Canadiens haven’t held a lead in any game during the series. They proved they are good at holding one this postseason, but the Lightning hasn’t given them much of a chance.
Tampa Bay has ground the Canadiens up and spat them out. They have been outscored 14-5. Everyone in the Lightning lineup is chipping in. Montreal has had its moments, but not nearly enough.
“This series is over as far as I’m concerned,” Anson Carter, who provides commentary for NBC, said at the conclusion of Friday’s 6-3 Tampa Bay victory. “I know they’ve got to play one more game – but this is all done.”
Game 4 is at the Bell Centre. It is either the end for the Canadiens or perhaps a start. Even so, it is most likely a delay of the inevitable. Only one team – the 1942 Maple Leafs – has overcome a 3-0 disadvantage in the Stanley Cup final.
Teams that hoist the trophy often first experience disappointment in the final round. St. Louis three times. Edmonton and Calgary. Washington. Carolina. Los Angeles and Anaheim. It is not a short list.
Tampa Bay won in its first opportunity in 2004. It lost in 2015, and in 2019 got swept by Columbus, a wild-card qualifier, in the first round. Now it is 60 minutes from going back to back.
There is a connection there, and perhaps a lesson for the Canadiens.
Three seasons ago, when the Lightning laid an egg against the Blue Jackets, there was a question whether Jon Cooper would keep his job as head coach. Tampa Bay was the best team in the NHL during the regular season, and then collapsed.
“I am sure there are a couple of teams that went right into winning, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head,” Cooper said on Saturday. “It’s a journey, right? There are a lot of teams that get gut-punched.
“When you go through tough times you try to build on them. It is like a snowball starting small at the top of the hill and going down. When you get a taste of success, you just want more. It is like an addiction. [My players] are feeling it now and hopefully we keep it together and finish this one off.”
The Lightning has outplayed the Canadiens at almost every level. Nikita Kucherov is a goal always waiting to happen. Defencemen are scoring. The goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, has been spectacular.
His counterpart for Montreal, Carey Price, has looked flummoxed. He is a future Hall of Famer but over three games he has an .835 save percentage. It is his first Stanley Cup final after 12 years in the league.
“You can talk about one guy or the other, but it is all of us,” said Dominique Ducharme, the Canadiens’ interim head coach. “We all need to be better.”
Montreal has been the most pleasant surprise among the 16 teams that made the playoffs. It barely made it, and then dispatched the Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights in earlier rounds.
The Canadiens trailed 3-1 before running the table against Toronto. They will fall back on that experience for inspiration now. There is little similarity between the Maple Leafs, a team that thinks it can’t, and the Lightning, which already knows it can.
“We were down a couple of years ago and had to look at a lot of things about our team,” said Ryan McDonagh, a veteran defenceman for Tampa Bay. “We had to look inside ourselves as individuals and realized that if we want to get to a greater goal we had to do it as a team.
“It takes getting knocked down in hard fashion and looking at yourself and what’s important and how bad you want something in this game.”
Montreal’s players speak now about having to attack this one game at a time. The Lightning’s players talk about how winning Game 4 is always the hardest of all. About how its opponent will be desperate. To a point, each of those things is true.
They are two teams on the verge. One closing in on another Stanley Cup, the other hoping for a miracle in its first final in 28 years.
“We’re not finished yet,” said Josh Anderson, the Canadiens’ forward. “I can tell you that.”
This has been a challenging season for everyone, but even moreso for Montreal.
A fired coach. Games suspended because of COVID-19. A late-season slump. A 3-1 disadvantage in Round 1. A coach in quarantine for parts of the semi-final and final rounds. An 0-3 hole to climb out of in the final round.
“It has been a difficult year,” Anderson said after the team worked on its power play during what could be its final full practice of the season. “Challenges were presented throughout the course of it. I wouldn’t expect anything but that now.
“I think everybody in here believes in our group. We don’t want to see the Lightning with the Stanley Cup. We will focus and make sure to play the right way and win one game [on Monday] night.”
They’d like more. You don’t always get what you want.