Eric Staal has played 17 seasons in the NHL and has won one Stanley Cup. It happened 15 long years ago in the best season of his distinguished career. He had 45 goals as a 21-year-old with the Carolina Hurricanes and 28 points in 25 games during the playoffs. He reminisced about it on Thursday, a day after the Canadiens fell behind the Lightning 2-0 in their best-of-seven series.
In 2006, Carolina won the first two games at home but it still took seven to put away the Edmonton Oilers.
“I clearly remember that,” the veteran centre said. “You feel good with a 2-0 lead but it is a race to four wins. This series is a long way from being over.”
The Canadiens flew home to Montreal from Florida on Canada Day in an unenviable position against the Stanley Cup defending champs. Teams that fall behind 2-0 in the finals have gone on to win only a half dozen times and have lost on 45 occasions.
At best, there is a sliver of a chance.
The Habs are grasping that because to do otherwise would invite panic. On Wednesday they outshot Tampa Bay 43 to 23 and did everything but win. The backbreaker was a spectacular goal by Blake Coleman that gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead with two seconds left in the second period.
Coleman was diving as he shovelled the one-handed shot beneath Carey Price’s right arm. It was a phenomenal effort on the part of the Tampa Bay centre but a shot Montreal’s goaltender should have turned back.
Price has been badly outplayed thus far by his counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy. Price has allowed eight goals on 50 shots; Vasilevskiy just two on 62. He had 42 saves in Wednesday’s 3-1 triumph.
Games 3 and 4 will be played on Friday and Monday nights at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens should get a boost from playing at home. Unlike in Tampa, where Amalie Arena was full, the crowd in Montreal will be limited to 3,500 spectators. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Quebec officials denied a request to allow 10,500 fans.
“We love playing in Montreal,” Staal said. The club picked him up at the trade deadline and he has contributed two goals and six assists in 18 postseason games. “We love the Bell Centre and the atmosphere that it brings.
“Unfortunately there will be a lot more people outside [than inside] but we know the support is there. We know everybody is as excited as we are to be in this position in the finals.”
The Canadians are contesting the Cup for the first time since 1993, when they were the last team from Canada to win. They rallied to beat the Maple Leafs in the first round, swept the Winnipeg Jets in the second and eliminated Vegas in six games in the semi-finals.
They were hammered 5-1 by Tampa Bay in Game 1 but played better on Wednesday even if it was a losing effort.
“I think we did a lot of good things,” Cole Caufield said Thursday before the team boarded its flight. After scoring four goals against the Golden Knights, the 20-year-old rookie has been held off the score sheet by the Lightning. “Some bounces didn’t go our way [but] that’s hockey. You have got to move on.
“Our energy is focused on Game 3 and getting that win. We have to just stick with what works and what got us here.”
Montreal is 11-2 in the playoffs when it scores first but has given up the first goal in each of the two games against Tampa Bay. The Canadiens fairly well dominated Wednesday’s game but had nothing to show for it.
“If we let them play their game, they are going to take advantage of us,” said Mikhail Sergachev, the Tampa Bay defenceman. “That is what we did. We didn’t play nearly good enough. We still found a way to win but we have to be better.”
The Canadiens will have interim head coach Dominique Ducharme back behind the bench for the first time since Game 1 of the Vegas series. He has been in quarantine since then because he tested positive for COVID-19.
Assistant coach Luke Richardson has run the team in Ducharme’s absence, and said he welcomes his return.
“We have kept in contact and had some Zoom meetings but it is not the same,” Richardson said. “One more guy on the bench is going to be helpful, especially Dom. A fresh view and voice back there is going to be a plus for us.”
Montreal is also counting on veterans such as Corey Perry, Joel Edmundson, Tyler Toffoli and Staal to get the team back on track. All won Stanley Cups with previous organizations. “There are always moments in the playoffs where as a group you need to lean on experience and lean on guys that have been around a while and been through certain situations,” Staal said. “Our focus is to go back to Montreal and shift the momentum to our side and go from there.
“We’ve got to get to four wins, so we’ll start with the next one. Back in 2006, it got all the way to Game 7 and everyone knows in Game 7 anything can happen. We probably deserved a better fate [Wednesday] night, but right now that’s not what matters. It’s about getting the wins and we’ll start with Game 3.”