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Lightning’s championship plans put on hold by determined Canadiens

TAMPA, Fla. — Anyone looking to suggest the mayor of Tampa spoke this result into existence would conveniently be ignoring the facts.

When Jane Castor went off-script over the weekend and delivered the non-sanctioned message that it would be best for the Lightning to pass on a sweep in order to claim the Stanley Cup here on home ice, she said: “Here’s what we would like. What we would like is for the Lightning to take it a little bit easy, to give the Canadiens just the smallest break.”

They did nothing of the sort during Monday’s white-knuckle 3-2 overtime loss that redirected this series into the eye of a hurricane — literally.

The Lightning played like a team trying to walk with legends. And they came up against a determined opponent that found a way through their attack.

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There was nothing easy about a first period where Tampa owned 18 of the 26 total shot attempts. Or about the unbelievable chance Nikita Kucherov had Carey Price frozen on with three minutes left in regulation, only to send it off the post. Or even the four-minute power play that stretched well into overtime before Josh Anderson dramatically froze the Bell Centre clock.

Play this game again and the Lightning win it more times than not. The same thing Montreal could have said after losing Game 2.

And here in the hockey-loving enclave around Amalie Arena there was little evidence of anyone wanting to delay the celebration. They filled the building for a Game 4 watch party and had several thousand people outside, too. This despite the fact everyone here is bracing for Hurricane Elsa to whip through sometime late Tuesday afternoon.

“I think the fanbase would have loved it if we would have come home with the Stanley Cup tonight. That’s paramount,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “I think it’s icing on the cake if you can do it at home.”

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After winning last year’s championship inside an empty Edmonton bubble, they’ll get the chance to go back-to-back at a sold-out Amalie Arena on Wednesday night.

There was obviously some disappointment at failing to finish off the sweep, especially with the golden opportunities they had to do it. But there wasn’t anything approaching concern in the tone Cooper, Victor Hedman and Barclay Goodrow conveyed during their media interviews.

“That was a close game overall. They were playing for their lives and they really brought it,” said Hedman. “We’ll recharge our batteries and get ready for next game.”

“In the past we’ve done a good job of leaving the previous game in the past if we’re coming off a loss,” added Goodrow. “I think we have a great leadership group that gets our minds in the right spot and this game’s over and done with and we’re moving on to Game 5.”

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The minds will only start to race if Montreal can get the next one since it will force Tampa into uncharted territory: The Lightning haven’t lost consecutive playoff games since 2019.

Should they look back over Game 4, special teams will be a point of emphasis. The Canadiens stellar penalty kill kept them to 0-for-5 with the man advantage, including the season-saving, double-minor Shea Weber took at 18:59 of the third period for cutting Ondrej Palat with a high-stick.

Otherwise the indicators were pretty strongly in their favour — the Lightning took 61 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts and owned 78 per cent of the high-danger chances, according to naturalstattrick.com.

They were on the right side of the expected goals, just not the actual ones.

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“What could we have done different? Probably not hit as many posts as we hit,” said Cooper. “The puck’s been going in for us and tonight they didn’t. Did I think we generated enough chances to score? I did, and they didn’t go in.

“Sometimes that happens. Sometimes you play pretty good and it’s a break here or a break there that just didn’t go your way and you have to keep fighting through it.”

Cooper pointed out that they’ve kept their mettle under similar circumstances in the past, whether it was missing out on a chance in Game 5 against Dallas during last year’s Stanley Cup Final or failing to convert Game 6 last round against the New York Islanders.

On both occasions, they got the job done in clinical fashion at the next available opportunity.

That opportunity comes with a chance to make the mayor’s comments look more like prophecy than a jinx. They’re ready to party down here, hurricane be damned. They just need a reason.

“Our fans deserve this, but there’s no guarantees,” said Cooper. “It’s weird. Maybe it’s set up. Maybe this was the way it was meant to be and that’s how it’s going to play out.

“Two teams still got to play the games and the game’s decided in the trenches and hopefully we can give our fans a gift.”

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