TAMPA, Fla. – The excitement built and crashed like waves hitting the break.
First Montreal trailed early in its playoff opener against Tampa Bay and then it owned a pair of leads in the third period. One minute Carey Price was staring down a Nate Thompson breakaway in overtime and then the Habs were watching helplessly as Max Pacioretty rang a shot off the post with a wide open net.
And, finally, just when everyone was settling in for a really long night, Dale Weise – Dale Weise! – abruptly ended this back-and-forth affair with the biggest goal of his life. No wonder Canadiens general manager Marc Bergervin celebrated the 5-4 win over the Lightning with a little jig in the press box.
This is the playoffs. Finally.
"It’s not an easy thing, the roller-coaster of emotion that you’re going to feel in playoff games," hardened Montreal veteran Daniel Briere said Wednesday. "That’s part of the experience factor – knowing when to stay composed, stay focused, even when you miss great chances or you make bad mistakes.
"I thought we did a really good job of staying composed and staying within our limits."
That’s so much easier said than done when you get in a bubbling cauldron of emotion like the Tampa Bay Times Forum was. Everyone enters a game like this knowing that the stakes will be raised, but that doesn’t change the fact that it needs to be seen and felt to be understood.
And for eight players in the Lightning lineup this was the first taste of playoff hockey in the NHL. Frankly, it showed.
This wasn’t the same Tampa team that reeled off an unexpected 101-point season to earn home-ice advantage in the opening round. There were turnovers, too many of them, and a lot of uncertain passes and failed breakouts.
Despite all of that, the Lightning were one shot away from winning the game. That had to be seen as a positive once the initial disappointment subsided.
"They had their chances, we had our chances," coach Jon Cooper said. "I thought probably overtime was one of our better periods we played in that game."
No matter how you break it down, this continues to look and feel like a series that could go the distance. Montreal and Tampa have now faced one another five times this season. Four of those games have been decided after regulation.
That it was Weise playing the overtime hero couldn’t have been predicted by anybody – including Habs coach Michel Therrien, who gave the fourth-line winger the second fewest minutes of playing time on the team.
The 25-year-old has no idea when he last scored in overtime. Minor hockey maybe? Heck, Weise has amassed just 13 goals in 186 NHL games, and there’s no debate about where this one ranks. He was wide open in front and hammered a perfect Briere pass over Anders Lindback at 18:08 of overtime.
"I saw it coming to me and my eyes got real big," Weise said. "I knew I wasn’t going to miss from there. I got down on one leg, the old Brett Hull, and I just ripped it."
It was one of those pinch-me moments. Weise was raised in a Jets-less Winnipeg and supported the Habs as a kid. In fact, his bedroom was covered in the team’s paraphernalia.
"Playing for my favorite team growing up, I’ve probably scored that goal a million times in my driveway," Weise said. "It feels good to actually do it in real life."
There was plenty for the Habs to feel good about after game one, starting with their 44-25 advantage in shots and including the composed manner in which they played. Don’t forget that this was a team that came completely unglued during a first-round loss to Ottawa last year.
This one could have slid away from them as well when Nikita Kucherov opened the scoring midway through the first period. Instead, Tomas Plekanec answered with a goal just 19 seconds later – a feat he nearly repeated in the second period after Steven Stamkos put the Lightning back ahead 2-1.
In the third period, it was the Habs that squandered two leads and after Pacioretty rang his shot off the post in overtime, there must have been some players on the visiting bench wondering if this would be their night.
Every team can use a Briere at this time of year. The veteran winger has wasted away most of this season on the fourth line, but he knows how to get the job done when it matters most. With the assist on Weise’s winner, he now has 110 points in 109 career playoff games.
"I had the feeling that something good was going to happen," Briere said. "Our line had too many scoring chances. At some point, we were going to get a good result from that."
Cooper wasn’t all that surprised to see it either. Even though his team was lifted by a pair of goals from Stamkos and another from top-six forward Alex Killorn, he believes a playoff series is won in the trenches.
"The big lines wash each other out and the guys that don’t get the monster minutes – somebody ends up being the hero," Cooper said. "For one night, their guys turned out to be the heroes over our guys."
In just one night, we were reminded about how exciting hockey can be when it’s played along the tightrope of emotion. The longest a lead lasted was three minutes 15 seconds.
This was far from a defensive masterpiece, both teams will almost certainly tighten things up, but you only needed to see Stamkos go straight after Andrei Markov in the second period to avenge a hit on Ondrej Palat to know how important this is.
Welcome back to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Finally.