Carey Price did so much to carry the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993, so it wasn’t surprising when he tried to shoulder the blame after they fell short against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Following a 1-0 loss to the Lightning, who won their second straight Stanley Cup championship, in Game 5 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday, Price pointed the finger at himself when asked to pinpoint what had been the difference in the best-of-7 series.
“At the end of the day, I just don’t think I played well enough at the start of the series,” the Canadiens goalie said.
Sitting beside Price, defenseman Shea Weber immediately jumped in to correct him.
“I don’t think that’s the case at all,” the Canadiens captain said. “To be honest, I think that we weren’t good enough in front of Carey. Give them credit. They’re a heck of a team. They’re here for a reason and they were better than us in the end.”
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Price was undoubtedly a factor in Montreal losing the first three games of the Final, particularly when compared to Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy voted as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Price had a 4.39 goals-against average and .835 save percentage (13 goals on 79 shots) in the first three games. Vasilevskiy had a 1.67 GAA and .948 save percentage (five goals on 97 shots).
Price played much better in the final two games after he called himself out following a 6-3 loss in Game 3, making 32 saves in a 3-2 overtime win in Game 4 and saving 29 of 30 shots in Game 5. However, Montreal’s margin for error was too small by that point.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” Price said. “But I’m only disappointed in the result.”
That is understandable. The 33-year-old waited a long time for this opportunity, playing 14 seasons with the Canadiens, who selected him with the No. 5 pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, before reaching the Cup Final for the first time.
Same with Weber, who took 16 NHL seasons to make it to his first Cup Final.
“I think a lot of us are at a loss for words right now,” the 35-year-old said. “To be honest, it’s tough. I think everybody knows that. You play for this reason. You get so close and you just can’t get enough.”
Being able to appreciate what they accomplished in the playoffs was difficult for the Canadiens in the aftermath of Game 5, but there’s no denying they had an impressive run. After finishing 18th in the NHL standings and fourth in the Scotia North Division during the regular season, Montreal trailed the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup First Round before rallying to win the final three games of that seven-game series.
The Canadiens then swept the Winnipeg Jets in the second round before upsetting the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, but they ran out of magic against the Lightning, who proved to be a deeper, more experienced team.
“Every single guy gave everything they had every single night,” Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher said. “You look at our group and, obviously, there’s a lot more talented teams and there’s a lot of teams that do a lot of things, but there’s no team that’s stronger as a group, and the resiliency that we showed, just a good team to be a part of.”
Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme listed some of the injuries they played through, or at least the ones he could remember. Weber played with a thumb injury, defenseman Jeff Petry had a finger injury, forward Tyler Toffoli had a groin injury, and Gallagher had “a groin (injury) and more.”
“A lot of guys banged up, but they fought,” said Ducharme, who replaced Claude Julien as coach Feb. 24. “They bled. They fought. They never quit.”
There is reason for Montreal to be optimistic about its future based on the performances of some its young players, including rookie Cole Caufield, 20; Nick Suzuki, 21; and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 21. Caufield, who had three assists in the Cup Final, and Suzuki, who scored three points in the series (two goals, one assist), were two of Montreal’s best players against Tampa Bay.
But before looking ahead, the Canadiens needed to get past their initial emotions about their season ending.
“I know we probably surprised a lot of people, but our expectations were to be the team celebrating right now, and that’s why it hurts so much,” Gallagher said. “We’d tell you guys all the time how much we believed, and I wasn’t lying. We believed in this group, and it’s just a tough pill to swallow.”