Another championship for the Tampa Bay Area is possible starting tonight as the Lightning host the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. Because of the 2020-2021 season it will be the first time since 1980 that team teams from the East will fight for a title.
While teams in the Eastern Time Zone have met in the final quite a few times since, the adjusted playoff format means this is the first final between two traditional Eastern Conference opponents in 41 years. Tampa Bay and Montreal will face off for the third time in eight postseasons, and this time it’s for the Stanley Cup.
“They’re going to get the best team that they’ve played against so far, and we’re going to get the best team that we’ve played against so far,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said Friday after a 1-0 victory against the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the semifinals. “It’s going to be a tough, grinding series.”
Montreal swept Tampa Bay in the first round in 2014 on the way to the East final, and the Lightning beat the Canadiens in six games in the second round on their way to the 2015 final. Lightning coach Jon Cooper, Stamkos and six other players remain from the series six years ago, while the Canadiens only have goalie Carey Price and forward Brendan Gallagher left on their roster from back then.
“I remember how close every game was,” Gallagher said. “Each game seemed to be decided by one play here, a mistake there. The difference was such a slim margin. I think since then their team has obviously been growing, their core’s grown. They got to feel what it’s like to win a championship last season, so they’re going to be a whole different animal.”
These teams have flip-flopped roles since. The Canadiens are now the younger team that hadn’t gone deep into the playoffs yet, while the Lightning endured the pain of losing in the 2015 final and getting swept out of the first round in 2019 before winning it all in the bubble last year.
“It took a lot to get here,” Cooper said. “It was all building blocks to get to here, and you can’t predict that. It’s going to happen.”
It’s happening now, with Game 1 at Tampa Bay set for Monday night.
The previous time a Stanley Cup Final took place between two Eastern teams, the New York Islanders beat the Philadelphia Flyers in 1980 for the first of their four consecutive titles. Then-Flyers forward Reggie Leach didn’t think much of the bus trips back and forth between Philadelphia and Long Island because, “We took a bus every place back then.”
This won’t quite be that, but it’s nothing like recent series between Boston and St. Louis, Washington and Vegas or Chicago and Tampa Bay.
“It takes a toll on you flying across the country on your off days,” said former Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, now an NBC Sports analyst. “You have enough stress and physical pressure in those games that to spend your off days on the airplanes getting ready to play another one was definitely tough.”
PRICE VS. VASILEVSKIY
Who’s the best goaltender in hockey? The final between Price and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy could go a long way toward deciding that.
Price has allowed 35 goals in 17 games, and Vasilevskiy 36 goals in 18 games.
“It’ll be obviously a big challenge for both teams,” Vasilevskiy said. “Carey, obviously he’s a great goalie — one of the best in the NHL — so, I’ll give him my best effort, for sure.”
Cooper said he’d never heard a building as loud as the final minute of the semifinal clincher against the Islanders, and that’s with Tampa Bay’s Amalie Arena at full capacity. Montreal’s Bell Centre has been limited to 3,500 fans with the hope, even from visitors, that more are let in for the final.
“I hope they let more fans in there,” Cooper said. “The fans in Quebec deserve it. They haven’t been back since ’93. They deserve to watch their team play. … This game was meant to be played in front of fans.”
While Cooper has been behind the Lightning’s bench since 2013, the Canadiens are on their third coach since February. Dominque Ducharme took over when Claude Julien was fired in February, and assistant Luke Richardson became acting coach when Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus.
Ducharme could be out of isolation as soon as Game 3 Friday in Montreal.
WIN NOW VS. WIN LONG AGO
Montreal will be looking for its first championship since 1993, which was Tampa Bay’s inaugural season. The Canadiens have an NHL-best 24 titles, but the Lightning have won twice since 2004 and become a standard bearer for franchise success.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, and that’s where we go back to all the times that we’ve been in this situation,” Stamkos said. “And this core now, there’s guys that this is their third final. We just go back on past experiences and go from there.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno