The Tampa Bay Lightning are one win away from being the first team in 23 years to sweep the Stanley Cup Final, but good luck trying to catch them looking that far ahead.
"We've put ourselves in good position, obviously, but the fourth one is the hardest to get," defenseman Victor Hedman said on Friday, after the Lightning trounced the Canadiens 6-3 in Game 3 in Montreal. "We have to do whatever it takes to win the next game and think about it after. We have more work to do and we are not satisfied."
The Lightning, who have yet to trail against Montreal, now hold a 3-0 series lead -- which typically portends well. In the NHL's 100-plus year history, only four teams have come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven playoff series, while 195 have gone on to win. The only team to come back from 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Final was the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs over the Detroit Red Wings.
"Anytime you get this close, you really feel it," veteran forward Tyler Johnson said. "I think winning last year makes you even want to win it more. I think everyone kind of feels that way, and we're really excited. But there's still a lot more to do."
Tampa Bay jumped to a 1-0 lead just 1:52 into the first period, as defenseman Jan Rutta scored on a long shot, past a heavily screened Carey Price. Hedman scored on the power play less than two minutes later. The Canadiens were doomed in the second period after the Lightning once again scored a pair of goals in less than two minutes.
It was the second time this series Price has allowed five or more goals, and his save percentage in the Final dropped to .835 -- after he posted a .931 save percentage or better in each of the first three rounds.
"I can definitely play better," said the 33-year-old Price, who is appearing on this stage for the first time in his 14-year career. "It's just not good enough so far."
The Canadiens entered the Final as a heavy underdog, as the team with the lowest points percentage (.527) to even qualify for the playoffs this year. And they promise not to give up now.
"We didn't quit the whole year, no matter what was being said," Canadiens center Phillip Danault said. "When it was 3-1 Toronto we didn't quit. And I can guarantee that nobody on the team is going to quit now."
The Canadiens have faced their fair share of adversity throughout the regular season -- including the firing of coach Claude Julien and a shutdown after a COVID-19 outbreak -- as well as the postseason. Friday marked the return of interim coach Dominique Ducharme after he served 14 days of quarantine following positive COVID-19 tests.
The current situation stings, though -- especially as the Canadiens know they dominated Game 2, with a plus-20 shot differential, and still went on to lose.
"We believe we can play against these guys," Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher said. "We've believed it since Game 1. We just haven't shown it enough -- not for a full 60 minutes. We've had sparks where everything we've talked about, everything we've done has worked, but there's just been mistakes in our game and we're playing too good of a hockey team. They're deep everywhere. They're going to make you pay."
Game 4 is on Monday in Montreal, and the Stanley Cup will be at the Bell Centre. Should Tampa Bay win, it would mark the first time a team swept the Stanley Cup Final since the Red Wings eliminated the Washington Capitals in four games in 1998.
In that span, three NBA Finals and six World Series have ended in sweeps.
Already, the Lightning are making marks all over the NHL history books over the past two pandemic-altered seasons. They can win two Stanley Cups in a nine-month span (previously, the shortest span between two championships by one team is 358 days, set by the Canadiens in 1968 and 1969). Meanwhile, Hedman became the first player in league history to score a goal in all 12 calendar months.
One of the stars of Friday's game was Johnson -- whom the Lightning put on waivers earlier this year, looking to shed his $5 million cap hit. Johnson scored two goals on Friday. Lightning coach Jon Cooper and Johnson have been together for 10 years now, which the coach called "crazy to think about."
"I'm extremely happy for the win," Cooper said. "I might be happier for Tyler Johnson."
Cooper said last year's Cup run felt like the first day of school with all the new faces -- including Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, two important trade deadline acquisitions and newcomers Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian and Patrick Maroon, who played key roles throughout the season. This year, Cooper said, feels like the last day.
"We don't know what our team is going to look like next year, if we're all going to be together again," Cooper aid. "There's some crazy circumstances that had to happen for this team to stay together and these guys understand that, they know that and they're well aware of what they can cement to themselves if they can somehow get one more win."