MONTREAL—It was two minutes of havoc in the Montreal Canadiens’ zone that changed the entire complexion of a game they were leading 1-0 and ended up losing 4-1.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had drawn a power play and managed to generate considerable momentum with it before their captain, Steven Stamkos, raised his hands to celebrate the goal that tied the game 1-1 as the penalty expired.
Technically it was an even-strength goal, scored at 13:42 of the first period, but Nicolas Deslauriers didn’t even have both feet on the ice as he left the penalty box when Stamkos’s howitzer of a shot beat Carey Price on the blocker side.
This has been a trademark of Tampa’s for several years now. They are a team loaded with stars, one that employs multiple shooting threats on the man-advantage, and they can turn around any game—even the ones they seem destined to lose—with a single sweep of a stick.
If the Canadiens had that going for them, things might have turned out different on this night. But after coming up empty on four different opportunities against the Lightning, their power play sunk to 24th in the league.
It hasn’t scored since the second period of a 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 23. That’s 15 straight whiffs with all that extra room on the ice.
That’s a killer.
Montreal’s first failure with the man-advantage came 3:58 into the first period, after dangerous chances from Andrew Shaw and Mike Reilly were snuffed out by Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
"The big thing for us was killing off that penalty," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
It was Yanni Gourde’s for interference, and had the Canadiens scored on it, they’d have put the Lightning in a world of hurt.
Max Domi scored 58 seconds into the game on Montreal’s first shot, and the ice tilted heavily towards Vasilevskiy from that point forward.
The shots came fast and furious—and from up close and personal. First it was former Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin with two from in close, then it was Shaw and Reilly forcing Vasilevskiy to come up with the goods.
The Canadiens kept coming after their opening power play, with chances for Reilly and Tomas Tatar going awry.
"I think we must have thought the game was a 7:30 start instead of a 7 (p.m. start)," said Cooper. "I’ll tell you, you watch them play that first eight minutes and they’ll play with any team in the league. They had us on our heels, just [with] their tenacity [and] their speed. And they’re not afraid to go to the inside."
But the Canadiens can’t do what the Lightning can when an opportunity to play with an extra player arises.
It was bad luck for the Canadiens that Deslauriers got called for boarding on a play the officials could have seen either way at 11:42 of the first period. Ryan McDonagh turned at the last second as he was retrieving a loose puck behind the Lightning’s net, and Deslauriers finished his check into McDonagh’s numbers.
"It’s a sensitive league now and times have clearly changed," said Cooper. "There’s going to be times when that’s called and times when it’s not, and in effort to protect players, from head injuries and hits from behind, everybody’s on alert. Coaches are on alert, refs are on alert, and like I said, sometimes those are let go and sometimes they’re not. I guess you probably have to err on the side of caution."
The Lightning took to the power play and got two quality scoring chances before Stamkos buried the puck in the same second it expired.
They were trailing 10-4 in shots before they got that opportunity, and they scored that goal and rode the wave before establishing a 2-1 lead and eventually ending up with an 18-12 shot advantage after 20 minutes.
The Lightning neutered Montreal’s power play twice more in the second period, which allowed them to seize momentum for good by the time the third began.
Stamkos scored his second of the game and his fourth of the year 52 seconds into the final frame, after he was left all alone to shoot bar-down from the slot.
"[Nikita] Kucherov sucked a couple of guys in and opened up the space for me coming over the line," he said. "If I had had that much space to shoot at any other point this season, I might have had more than the two goals I came into the game with."
He’s a sniper, as is Kucherov, and together they are the beating heart of a healthy power play which is currently scoring on nearly 28 per cent of its opportunities.
The Canadiens have a shooting threat in defenceman Jeff Petry, but that’s pretty much where it ends.
Not that Domi, Drouin, Tatar, Brendan Gallagher and Jesperi Kotkaniemi can’t shoot. They certainly can, and they looked as dangerous as they have been all season when they were all on together for a shift on the power play in this game. But the first four are more inclined to set plays up, and Gallagher typically finishes from the goal mouth.
A guy who can open up everything with his booming shot from the point—he has arguably the hardest one in the league—is Shea Weber. But he’s missing in action for the Canadiens and is still at least a month away from returning from off-season knee surgery.
None of this has cost the Canadiens much in establishing a 7-3-2 record to start the season. They’ve been dynamic at even strength, and their effort all around has been nothing short of impressive.
But a fourth loss in regulation for the Canadiens was largely due to their ineptitude on the power play. If they don’t fix it quickly, they’re asking for more trouble.