TAMPA, Fla. – Facing an important game two against Montreal without their leading scorer, the Tampa Bay Lightning felt right at home. They’ve seen this movie before.
Of course, the only reason Ondrej Palat outscored captain Steven Stamkos this season is because Stamkos missed 45 games with a broken leg. The Lightning also had to overcome numerous other injuries and the loss of former captain Martin St. Louis to a trade demand – not to mention the fact that No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop went down with an elbow injury last week.
Palat suffered an undisclosed upper-body injury during game one against the Canadiens and wasn’t expected to be available on Friday night. The Czech rookie plays on Tampa’s top line and both specialty team units, and won’t be easily replaced.
“We’ve had a hole in our lineup all year and other guys have stepped up and played well,” Stamkos said after an optional morning skate at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. “[Palat] is an unbelievable player, we’ve seen what he can do this year, but it will just give other guys an opportunity to step up and hopefully rise to the occasion.
“That’s been a reason why we’ve had a lot of success this year, is because we’ve gone through that adversity.”
It was an especially tough spot to find themselves because of how thoroughly Montreal dominated the opener. Yes, the Habs only won 5-4 in overtime, but they controlled the puck for most of the night and wound up outshooting Tampa 44-25.
If they’re able to duplicate the performance, the odds are pretty good that the Canadiens will head home with a 2-0 series lead.
The visitors were particularly happy with the way their forwards backchecked, which helped limit Tampa’s ability to get setup in the offensive zone. The majority of Tampa’s chances were one and done situations.
“I believe it’s the difference in the game,” said Habs defenceman Josh Gorges. “[The backchecking] forces them to skate into us as defencemen, it takes away their time from trying to move laterally and create open ice. Then when we do create a loose puck or maybe even a turnover, we’re all close together for tight support and transition going the other way.
“If you don’t have that pressure from behind, with the players and the talent level that they have on the other side … they’re going to have time and they’re going to make plays and now you’re in trouble.”
The biggest issue Habs goalie Carey Price faced in the opening game was dealing with long periods of inactivity. He faced just 16 shots in regulation, but had to be sharp during the overtime before Dale Weise scored the winner.
This is a confident Montreal team. Coach Michel Therrien believes the strong finish to the regular season – they were 12-6-1 after Thomas Vanek was acquired at the trade deadline – has put his group in position to make a playoff run.
“The way that we finished the year I know our team was well-prepared and ready for that challenge,” said Therrien. “Game one was a challenge and tonight’s game two is another level. We’ll be ready.”
The Lightning players were also hoping to be a little more relaxed in the playoff environment than they were on Wednesday. This organization is making its first post-season appearance in three years and eight players dressed for their first career NHL playoff game that night.
“Our poise under pressure wasn’t really there,” said defenceman VIctor Hedman.
“We just have to be more composed,” added Stamkos. “I think that’s a word we’ve probably used the last couple of days. Be confident in your abilities. Be confident in the way we’ve won games throughout the course of this year.
“That’s been a trait of our team is having that puck and possessing it and being confident and making plays.”