Canadiens become latest team to fall victim to powerhouse Lightning

Nikita Kucherov recorded two more points as the Tampa Bay Lightning used a big third period to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-0.

TAMPA BAY— “We cracked,” said Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien following his team’s third-period collapse against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

He repeated it several times, first in French and then in English. And when he was asked why that was the case, why the Canadiens, who fought tooth and nail and succeeded to keep pace with the NHL’s best team through the first two periods, imploded over the final 20 minutes, he responded with questions of his own.

“Is it because of youth?” asked Julien. “Is it because of focus?”

Those were definitely two factors. Indiscipline was another, with the Canadiens taking three costly minor penalties in that final frame. And then there’s the fact that the Lightning, who have a 15-point advance on the next best team in the league, are a quick-strike group that will make you pay for any and all mistakes.

The Canadiens made enough of them to earn the result they ended up with—a 3-0 loss that left them frustrated.

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Some sleep may offer a fresh perspective, though. They had things at 0-0 through two periods and were a centimeter away from taking a 1-0 lead to second intermission (a goal for Brett Kulak was reversed after it was deemed Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a hair offside). Things could’ve turned out differently, but they inevitably fell victim to the NHL’s best power play, on a goal from the NHL’s best scorer, and things devolved from there, like they have for so many teams before them.

The Lightning last lost in regulation on Jan. 30, and they came into Saturday’s game having scored 22 goals over their last four. What they did against the Canadiens is what they’ve done countless times before this season—turning a one-goal lead into a two-goal lead in less than two minutes, and then they were a runaway train from that point forward.

“It obviously helps scoring [Nikita Kucherov’s] pp goal, and the big one was [Yanni] Gourde scoring right after that,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “You could tell our bench got just a little bit taller and theirs got a little bit shorter. We kind of took advantage of that and played it out.”

Tyler Johnson tipped home a Victor Hedman point shot to make it 3-0 with just over eight minutes remaining. The goal was called back for goaltender interference, and then just under five minutes later Johnson put a bow on a nice pass from Steven Stamkos to get back onto the score sheet.

That was that.

“There are lessons for us to take away from this game,” said Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher.

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Teammate Jeff Petry pointed to the importance of sticking to the game plan, of not getting unsettled by an early third-period lead surrendered, and of pushing things in the offensive zone. And he was right on all three counts.

But it’s worth noting their effort was commendable. Just as it was in a 5-2, 53-shot win over the mighty Winnipeg Jets four games ago, and in a 4-3 heartbreaking overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday, and in a closely contested loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday, and in virtually all but a handful of games of the 58 they’ve played this season.

“The Canadiens put up a real good fight,” said the legendary Scotty Bowman as the final seconds ticked away on Saturday’s game. The winningest coach in NHL history added that he was impressed with his former team’s tenacity and that he has been since the season started.

“They’d make it a real good playoff series against the Lightning,” Bowman said.

If the Canadiens learn from what happened to them on Saturday, it could prove true.

They made the types of mistakes you can’t afford to make in any game, let alone in one against the league’s most lethal team.

Sure, Julien didn’t agree with the hooking call on Phillip Danault that led to Kucherov’s goal, saying it was a soft one made in the third period of a 0-0 game. And he didn’t like the boarding call on Nicolas Deslauriers, either, after a one-arm shove from the Canadiens’ fourth liner dropped 214-pound Adam Erne to the ice rather easily. But even if you agree with him—we don’t—the roughing penalty Dale Weise took on Erne in the neutral zone, while the Canadiens were only trailing 2-0 with 6:42 remaining, was completely unnecessary.

Speaking of unnecessary, Jonathan Drouin tossing a cross-ice pass onto Gourde’s stick for Tampa’s second goal, while he and his linemates were rushing through the neutral zone and their defenceman were making a line change behind them, was a fine example.

The Canadiens made more than their fair share of those plays in the final 20 minutes of the game, which explains why they were out-shot 17-4 over that time.

“We laid an absolute egg in the third period,” said Canadiens goaltender Carey Price after making 34 saves in the loss.

As Julien said, they cracked. But the Lightning did what they’ve done to just about every team in the league this season.

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