Justin Williams said he knows exactly what the Montreal Canadiens are feeling and thinking as they stare down the toughest hurdle in hockey, trying to come back from down 3-0 in a best-of-7 series.
The former NHL forward also knows what it’s like to overcome it, having been part of the Los Angeles Kings’ comeback from being on the brink of a sweep against the San Jose Sharks in the 2014 Western Conference First Round.
“Montreal has to believe that they’re better than Tampa Bay,” Williams said in a phone interview Sunday. “Are they and do they believe it are the questions they need to ask themselves. You have to believe that you’re the better team and that times can change.”
The 2014 Kings were the fourth NHL team to win a best-of-7 series after losing the first three games. The Canadiens will try to become the fifth beginning with Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
The Lightning won the first three games by a combined 14-5. They have not trailed in the series.
This is the 200th time a team has taken a 3-0 lead in an NHL best-of-7 series. The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Islanders, the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and the 2014 Kings are the teams that have successfully made the comeback.
The Maple Leafs did it in the Stanley Cup Final. Twenty-six others have failed.
“I mean, listen, in hockey and especially in a series it’s usually momentum and not one team usually has it the whole time,” Williams said. “You have to answer the bell so many times in a playoff series and Montreal is just going to have to do it in four straight games. But they have to start with one. It comes down to that same thing, there’s nothing really more you can say about it, do you believe you can do it? They’ve turned a lot of heads, obviously. They’re here. They’ve done the prove you wrong, underdog mentality, all that stuff that teams thrive under. But they’ve run into an absolute wagon here in Tampa Bay. It’s not over, though.”
Winning Game 4 like the 2014 Kings did 6-3 at Staples Center fueled the belief, Williams said. Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli was a rookie on that team.
“You get that one win, you make yourself feel a little looser,” he said.
Brian Boucher remembers doing the same for the Flyers against the Boston Bruins in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Flyers were down 3-0, but forward Simon Gagne scored in overtime of Game 4 to give them a 5-4 win at home. Boucher, then the Flyers goalie, said they went to Boston for Game 5 feeling something special could be brewing because not only did they get a win, the Bruins were playing without center David Krejci, who was injured in Game 3.
“I wouldn’t say there was a wave of momentum coming but we felt like there’s something here,” Boucher said. “Anybody would say that when you look back on it and you come back and win four straight, but I do think we felt that we finally got a break and Krejci being injured was another break, so there was something to build on.”
Boucher, now an analyst broadcasting the Cup Final for NBC, injured his knee in the second period of Game 5 and had to be replaced by Michael Leighton.
“But when I played, we were rock solid, in control of the game,” he said. “We played a real solid Game 5 and now it was a series and now the pressure was right on Boston, absolutely right on Boston. That’s how it goes. You start to plant that seed of doubt.”
That’s what the Canadiens hope to do Monday, but their task is even more daunting than just being in such a hole in the Cup Final.
They have to win four straight games against the Lightning, a team that hasn’t lost two in a row in seven consecutive playoff series. The Flyers in 2010 and the Kings in 2014 also were not facing the defending Stanley Cup champions like the Canadiens are now.
But Williams said players don’t think about it that way.
“They don’t need to see the stats to know that it’s a big task,” he said. “It’s hard, but when you’re in the moment it doesn’t seem that insurmountable. It doesn’t make sense.”
It doesn’t usually work out either.
Williams was also part of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019, when they were swept by the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final after sweeping the Islanders in the second round. He said the Hurricanes probably had some doubt against the Bruins going into Game 4.
He was also on the Kings in 2012 when they had a 3-0 lead in all four rounds. They swept one, won in five in two and won the Stanley Cup in six games against the New Jersey Devils.
“Tampa has that feeling right now of, ‘Wow, we put ourselves in an unbelievable position, let’s not screw it up now,'” Williams said.
It’s human nature for the Canadiens to be feeling some doubt with the way the series has gone so far but win Game 4 and who knows.
Maybe it’s all they need. Maybe it just delays the inevitable.
“The Lightning won the Stanley Cup and they’ve got a heck of a pedigree and a heck of a team, so do I think they’re going to collapse?” Williams said. “No, but you’ve got to play the games.”