Canadiens confident of quick recovery following Game 1 loss in Stanley Cup final

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TAMPA, Fla. — For the sake of the Montreal Canadiens and their Stanley Cup aspirations, here's hoping that for once, what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.

Monday's 5-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning looked a lot like the first game of Montreal's semifinal series against the Vegas Golden Knights: a decent start, an unfamiliar opponent, a disappointing 4-1 defeat.

Game 2 in Sin City was a different story — and the team is vowing it will be again Wednesday in Tampa Bay.

"We lost Game 1 against Vegas and then came back with a real solid game," said Nick Suzuki, one of the young power forwards the Habs are counting on to create chances against Tampa's sprawling, brawling defence.

"It's a best-of-seven series, and if we can get one on the road here, that'd be big for us. But even if we don't, we still got the two home games ... tomorrow is going to be a big one for confidence, and I think the guys will be ready to play."

The Canadiens are hoping to generate even more of a home-ice advantage for those games, announcing Tuesday they are asking the Quebec government to ease attendance restrictions at the Bell Centre.

COVID-19 restrictions in Quebec have so far limited attendance to 3,500; the club wants to increase that to a physically distanced 10,500 people, said executive vice-president France Margaret Bélanger, the team's chief commercial officer.

"We would continue to require people to wear a mask; we think it's very important," said Bélanger, noting that the Bell Centre has had no COVID-19 cases at all to date.

"We've got a lot of space, and we intend to use that space to make sure that all these guys are distanced from one another, with the family bubble, and we're very confident that we can actually do it."

The Habs and their fans won't be the only ones back at the Bell Centre. Interim head coach Dominique Ducharme is scheduled to reclaim the bench after his own battle with the virus.

But first comes Game 2.

Improved puck management will be vital to avoid the blue line and neutral-zone turnovers that cost the Habs so dearly in Game 1, both against the Bolts as well as the Knights, said assistant coach Luke Richardson.

"It was probably our worst game in the last five games ... puck management was our difficulty," Richardson said.

"They're going to create their own offence; we don't have to help them in any way, that's for sure. So if we can limit that to very little to none, we're going to give ourselves a better chance to have more energy for our own game plan and having more success."

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final is always going to have a bit of a deer-in-headlights effect on a team, especially among the younger, less experienced players, Richardson added.

I thought we started to get going a little bit in the second period — we scored, we hit the post, missed a breakaway or two and had a few chances," he said.

"We definitely have to have a lot more battle in us. It was a big stage yesterday, and I'm sure there were some jitters on our part."

Defensive forward Phillip Danault predicts those jitters will give way Wednesday to the determination that comes from being down in the series and wanting to avoid going into Montreal in a two-game hole.

"When we've got our backs against the wall, it seems like we're better," he said. "We want to step up and we want to be better as a team, and we know the second game is going to be huge for us."

Danault's linemate, the feisty Brendan Gallagher, left the game late in the third period Monday, his face dripping with blood, after one of his usual skirmishes in front of the Bolts net sent him crashing to the ice without a helmet.

All in a day's work, said Richardson.

"He doesn't look great — he looks like a road map right now," he smiled.

"But you know he'll be there battling and in everybody's face that at the crease just the same as he always is. He's a warrior, and we count on him to be that way, and he'll be back doing his thing (Wednesday)."

Look for the rest of the Habs, a team that has finally, largely silenced the critics of its most unlikely playoff campaign, to have much the same attitude.

"It's not a fluke," Richardson said.

"You're going to see a more determined effort, and I think you've seen that in every series. We've gotten better as all three series have gone on, and we expect that to happen again here in the finals."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2021.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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