MONTREAL — The Tampa Bay Lightning know if they don’t win the Stanley Cup by sweeping the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on Monday, they will have three more chances in the best-of-7 series.
They know there will be about 3,500 fans in the stands for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS) due to COVID-19 restrictions here, but there would be about 18,600 at Game 5 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday, including family and friends.
And they remember when they won the Cup last season, they did it in an empty arena in Edmonton and couldn’t share it with their fans, family and friends in the bubble thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
They’re only human. It has to creep into their heads at a moment like this, that the worst-cast scenario for Game 4 is a loss that gives them a chance to clinch at home, right?
“Ah, no,” coach Jon Cooper said Sunday. “That will never sneak into our locker room.”
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Montreal. Tampa. It doesn’t matter. At least it shouldn’t.
“It’s about winning,” Cooper said. “It’s not about where you win.”
Game 4, in its own way, will be another test for the Lightning. They have lots of reasons to be overconfident, distracted or at least less than urgent. At the same time, they have lots of experience to know better than to take anything for granted.
The Lightning were swept in the Eastern Conference First Round by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019. They haven’t lost consecutive playoff games since and will have to lose four straight to fail to repeat as champions.
Teams with a 3-0 series lead in the Cup Final have won it 26 out of 27 times, and the exception, the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, won the last three games of the series while Detroit Red Wings coach Jack Adams was suspended for assaulting an official.
This Cup Final has been the most lopsided through three games since 1997, when the Red Wings outscored the Philadelphia Flyers 14-5, the same as the Lightning have outscored the Canadiens. The Red Wings went on to win in a sweep.
The Lightning have spent the past two days confined to their hotel and the rink. Although they haven’t been scrambling for tickets to Game 4 for family and friends as they normally would be, they have had to worry about Tropical Storm Elsa, which is projected to hit Florida on Tuesday.
“Obviously a couple wrinkles with the situation that we’re in here in Canada and the storm back home,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We want to make sure everyone’s safe. But at the same time, this group is focused on the game.”
Tampa Bay spent more than two months in the bubble last postseason, making a few days in a Montreal hotel seem like nothing.
During that run, the Lightning had a 3-1 series lead against the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Final. They lost 2-1 in double overtime in Game 5 before winning 2-1 in OT in Game 6.
They had a 3-1 series lead against the Dallas Stars in the Cup Final. They lost 3-2 in double OT in Game 5 before winning 2-0 in Game 6. (Who scored the first and last goal for Dallas in that Game 5, by the way? Corey Perry, who now plays for Montreal).
“There’s a mindset that has developed with our players,” Cooper said. “We had a chance to knock out the Islanders last year and didn’t do it. We had a chance to knock Dallas last year and didn’t do it. It’s a learning process to go through that.
“By no means does that guarantee any results of what’s going to happen in tomorrow’s game, but I know our mindset’s different going into these games.”
Well, Cooper’s right. No guarantees. Different mindset or not, the results have still been mixed this season in terms of closing out series quickly.
The Lightning had a 3-1 series lead against the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup First Round. They lost 4-1 in Game 5 before winning 4-0 in Game 6.
They had a 3-1 series lead against the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round and closed them out with a 2-0 win in Game 5.
After winning 8-0 in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals to take a 3-2 series lead against the Islanders, they lost 3-2 in overtime in Game 6. They won 1-0 in Game 7.
Stamkos said it was easy for the Lightning not to look past the Canadiens, who fell behind 3-1 in the first round before rallying to defeat the Maple Leafs. Why give them any momentum, any hope, any chance?
“We know the difficulty of the Montreal Canadiens and what they bring to the table,” Stamkos said. “For us, it’s another game. You worry about all that stuff after you’ve gone out there and put your best effort on the ice. If we can do that next game, whatever happens, happens.
“We’re just focusing. We’re not reading into all that stuff. This group’s very mature in terms of realizing the task at hand.”