The Tampa Bay Lightning are heading into a hostile setting for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS), and coach Jon Cooper can’t wait to get there.
“It’s like a pinch-yourself moment a bit that you have an opportunity to coach in the building and be a part of that environment,” Cooper said before the Lightning flew to Montreal on Thursday. “How much history and memories and books have been written about that franchise? So I know the people in there won’t be cheering for us, but I’m sure excited to be a part of it.”
It will be the first Stanley Cup Final game at Bell Centre since it opened in 1996. The Canadiens won the most recent of their NHL-record 23 Stanley Cup championships at the Montreal Forum in 1993, defeating the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 in the clinching Game 5. They also won the Cup in 1916 before the NHL was formed.
The Lightning are two wins from completing their repeat bid and winning the Stanley Cup for the third time after defeating the Canadiens in the first two games of the best-of-7 Final at home. But after 17,166 fans filled Amalie Arena for Tampa Bay’s 3-1 win in Game 2 on Wednesday, it will be a different atmosphere at Bell Centre.
Attendance will be limited to 3,500 after Quebec public health authorities denied the Canadiens’ request to ease COVID-19 restrictions and increase capacity to 10,500 for the Final. Still, Tampa Bay expects those fans in the building to be vocal and will welcome the adversarial conditions compared to playing without fans in attendance at the NHL hubs at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto and Rogers Place in Edmonton during its run to winning the Stanley Cup last season.
“They’ve got a pretty good fan base, so Bell Centre is always loud. It doesn’t matter how many fans they’ve got there,” Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. “We played in the Cup Final last year with no fans, so we’re kind of used to that experience. But yeah, obviously it’s going to be a lot different because now we’re used to playing with fans.”
Sergachev was selected by Montreal with the No. 9 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and played four games for the Canadiens before being traded to the Lightning on June 15, 2017.
“But at the same time, we’ve had that experience before, so I think the guys are going to be ready,” he said.
Cooper has fond memories of coaching at Bell Centre in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when Tampa Bay defeated Montreal in six games in the 2015 Eastern Conference Second Round. Though the Canadiens won their championships at the Forum, Bell Centre has a historic feel to it that makes it Cooper’s favorite road arena.
“Just the way the seats go up, how dark it is, the banners, the history, the presentation, the fans, the passion, it just all culminates into you walk in there and you’re like, ‘Wow, something special has happened in this place for some time,'” Cooper said. “It just has that feel. … It’s a special place, and, much like all the Original Six teams, there’s a rich history in the past and, as I said, [when] you’re in there, you feel like you’re part of something special.”
Cooper grew up in Prince George, British Columbia, but recalls watching Montreal play at the Forum on “Hockey Night in Canada” on Saturday nights. The 53-year-old was 11 when the Canadiens won the Cup for the fourth straight season in 1979.
“I’m not going to date myself, but basically the only two teams that were on ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ were the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens,” Cooper said. “And back then it felt like there was only two sets of fans. You cheered for one and hated the other. So I lived for Saturday nights regardless of who was playing, from watching and just kind of marveling at the way the Canadiens played. I remember vividly the Cup runs they had.”
The Lightning are on a run of their own now, having won seven straight postseason series. With two more wins, they’d join the Canadiens and become the ninth different NHL team to win the Cup in consecutive seasons.
But they’ll have to go through Bell Centre to get there. Even with a limited capacity, it should be a fun ride.
“It’s unfortunate that only 3,500 people can be there,” Cooper said. “But I guess some is better than nothing, and it is much better playing in front of fans, there’s no question.”