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Blake Coleman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is congratulated by his teammates after scoring an empty-net goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the third period in Game 3 of the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final. The Lighning won 6-3 at Bell Centre on July 2, 2021 in Montreal.Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

After an improbable run through the postseason, the Canadiens are on the verge of elimination after a 6-3 loss to the Lightning on Friday night in the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Montreal allowed two goals in the first three and a half minutes and another pair less than two minutes apart at the start of the second period and now trails the best-of-seven series 3-0. Tampa Bay can lock up its second consecutive NHL championship with another win on Monday at the Bell Centre.

The Canadiens hoped to get an emotional lift from playing on their home ice and having interim head coach Dominique Ducharme back behind the bench after two weeks of quarantine. Neither really mattered. They lost just the same as in the first two games at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

“We put ourselves in a hole early and it’s tough dig yourself out against a team like that,” Montreal captain Shea Weber said. “It was an uphill battle all night.”

Tyler Johnson scored twice, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman each had a goal and an assist and Andrei Vasilevskiy had 32 saves in the Lightning’s victory. Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki and Corey Perry scored for Montreal. Carey Price had another difficult night in the net for the Canadiens. He gave up two goals on the first five shots and goals on back-to-back attempts later. On the night, Price allowed five goals on 29 shots.

“I can definitely play better,” Price said. He is 33 and this is his first Stanley Cup final. “It is just not good enough so far.”

Ducharme returned to the team after being away for 16 days. The 48-year-old had been in isolation since June 17 after testing positive for COVID-19. It caused him to miss the last four games of the semi-final series against Vegas and the first two of this round against Tampa Bay.

“It [wasn’t] easy,” Ducharme said Friday following the morning skate. He was promoted from assistant coach on February 24 when Claude Julien was fired. “I love what I do and I love being with the group of guys and the staff.

“We work well together. To have that taken away is difficult. At the same time there are things you can control and things you can’t. We just tried to make the best of it.”

For Montreal Canadiens fans, it’s all or nothing

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The Canadiens went 15-16-5 under Ducharme during the regular season and did not secure a playoff berth until the last game. They beat the Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets in the first two rounds and were 1-1 against the Golden Knights when he was forced into quarantine. Luke Richardson then took over in Ducharme’s absence, and Montreal responded by winning three of the next four to advance to the final round for the first time in 28 years.

Tampa Bay won the opener 5-1, but was fortunate to escape with a 2-1 victory in Game 2. Ducharme kept in contact with Richardson and the players via phone and video call and finally re-joined them only hours before the game.

“I know it had to be killing Dom for the last two weeks,” Eric Staal, Montreal’s veteran centre, said. “He is no different than us as players. You dream and work your whole life to be in a Stanley Cup final. To miss the first two games is tough.”

Friday’s game was the first during a Stanley Cup final in Montreal since June 9, 1993, when Paul DiPietro scored twice to lead the Canadiens to a championship-clinching win over the Los Angeles Kings at the old Forum. That is also the last time a team from Canada hoisted Lord Stanley’s trophy.

The last time any Canadian-based club hosted a game in the finals on home ice was June 15, 2011, when the Vancouver Canucks lost Game 7 to the Boston Bruins.

With the streets jammed outside, a crowd of 3,500 was admitted to the Bell Centre. Health officials in Quebec denied a request from the club to allow more. The game was the first in NHL history to ever be played in July.

The Canadiens found themselves in trouble immediately. Tampa Bay got on the board less than two minutes in when Jan Rutta slipped a puck past Price from 50 feet out. It was the second goal of the playoffs for the Czech defenceman, who did not score in 35 regular-season games. Ondrej Palat and Hedman drew assists.

Hedman then wired a long slap shot past Price with 16:33 left in the first period for a 2-0 advantage. The goals came on the Lightning’s fourth and fifth shots. The second came on a power play after Staal flipped a puck over the glass and was called for delay of game.

“It obviously wasn’t the start we wanted,” Brendan Gallagher, the Canadiens forward, said. “I’m not going to sit here and take a whole lot of positives out of it. We are just making too many mistakes and they are too deep a team for us to do that against.”

Ducharme called a timeout after the Lightning’s second goal to settle his players’ down, and it proved to be a smart tactical move. Montreal increased the tempo and suddenly had Tampa Bay on its heels. Vasilevskiy turned away a flurry of shots before Phillip Danault brought the Canadiens within 2-1 nearly nine minutes before the second intermission. The puck went up and over Vasilevskiy’s blocker and caromed off the post. It was Danault’s first goal of the postseason.

The teams went to their dressing rooms with the Lightning clinging to the lead. Then they regained momentum with two quick goals at the beginning of the second.

Kucherov scored on a backhand with 18:20 remaining, and then Johnson did the same 1 minute 53 seconds later. The goal was the eight of the playoffs for Kucherov, who leads all scorers in the postseason with 32 points.

“The Canadiens are stunned,” announcer Pierre McGuire said on NBC. “They just got punched in the mouth.”

Montreal still did not give in. Suzuki scored for the second time in the series and seventh time in the playoffs to cut the disadvantage to 4-2. The crowd erupted inside the Bell Centre and the throng of thousands outside exploded. The Canadiens kept pushing – and then Johnson added a backbreaker with 4:41 left.

With Price pulled for an extra attacker, Perry scored only 39 seconds later. There was bedlam again. Then Blake Coleman added an empty netter, and that was it.

With that, Montreal’s season is 60 minutes from being over.

“I can promise you one thing about this group,” Gallagher said. “Nobody will quit. All we can do is win Game 4 and go from there.”

Price was more succinct.

“We don’t have a choice,” he said.

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