MONTREAL — They were two subtle plays, but game-defining ones made by the youngest player on the Montreal Canadiens. Made with the stakes at their highest and a chance to remain in the hunt for a playoff position hanging in the balance.
It was in the 10th minute of the third period, with the Canadiens clinging to a one-goal lead against a team that only needs one shot to score a goal, that Jesperi Kotkaniemi hustled back to his own zone and shoved the puck to teammate Brett Kulak before two Tampa Bay Lightning players hammered him into the glass. Seconds later, after Kotkaniemi collected himself off the ice, he skated into position in the neutral zone with the puck and made a play to get it deep into Tampa territory before Cedric Paquette flattened him.
The 18-year-old Finnish rookie knew the hits were coming hard and fast on both plays but he sacrificed himself to make them anyway, typifying the type of effort we saw from his entire team in a 4-2 win over the NHL-leading Lightning.
“There’s not a single guy I think on this roster tonight that was not engaged, and we needed that” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien afterwards.
They needed to shrug off a horrific bounce off Max Domi’s leg and into their own net in the third minute of the game. They needed to do it again when Paquette made it 2-1 Tampa in the second with a goal that came from a bounce off Canadiens defenceman Jordie Benn’s skate, which went straight to Adam Erne for a 2-on-0 setup in front of Carey Price.
They were moments that could’ve staggered the Canadiens. Moments like the ones that staggered them earlier this season. But they refused to let that happen in this game.
“We had a mission to win this game,” said Julien. “We knew if we got discouraged, we had no chance. Those are things you learn over the course of a season and I think we understood that lesson and we’re currently applying those learnings.”
The Canadiens rebounded with goals that sent the fans at the Bell Centre into a frenzy. First, it was Nate Thompson scoring his first goal since coming over in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 11, and then it was Joel Armia charging down the ice in the eighth minute of the second period to score on a bank shot from behind Tampa’s net.
It was a resilient play, with Armia taking three swipes at a goal before finally scoring one. It was one of many the Canadiens made on this night.
They needed to take the game to a Lightning team that was playing its third game in four nights and the second half of a back-to-back, and they put 19 shots on net in the first period. They needed to stay disciplined, and they managed to by not giving the top-ranked power play in the NHL a single opportunity. They needed to be the better team from wire to wire, and they were in registering 45 shots and 92 attempts and limiting Tampa to just 24 shots and 52 attempts.
It was nothing short of impressive. And the deciding play, made by Artturi Lehkonen with 13:12 remaining in the third period, was exactly that. Impressive. The 23-year-old Finn left nothing to chance—knocking the puck out of mid-air and swatting at it again to get it over the goal-line as goaltender Eddie Pasquale scrambled helplessly in Tampa’s crease.
The goal came on Montreal’s 44th shot of the game, and what happened between that and their 45th was all the evidence you needed to suggest the Canadiens wouldn’t be denied in this game.
It was less than three minutes after the Lehkonen goal that Kotkaniemi, who was the only Canadien to not record a shot attempt in the game, came up with those two plays to get the puck out of harm’s way.
“I think that was huge,” said Thompson. “Taking a hit to make a play and he gets up and he laughs it off–that’s something you want to see from an 18-year-old.”
On the ensuing faceoff after Kotkaniemi cleared the puck, Domi drew it back and Benn and partner Christian Folin exchanged it and got it over to Lehkonen. That’s when Lehkonen desperately shovelled it over to Domi, who skated in a half-breakaway and buried his 28th goal of the season on the team’s final shot of the game.
“We kept our heads down and we kept pushing and pushing the pedal and really forechecked them and tried to keep our minds right even when those bad bounces happened,” said Lehkonen.
It kept their season alive. With the win, coupled with a 6-2 loss the Columbus Blue Jackets suffered to the Boston Bruins, the Canadiens pulled even in points for the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference. They kept themselves within one point of the Carolina Hurricanes, who beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1 to move into the first wild-card spot.
“We were buzzing tonight,” said Victor Mete, who took the shot Lehkonen capitalized on to win the game. “Two more games like that and we should get in.”
First in Washington, to take on the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals on Thursday. Then it’s back home at the Bell Centre on Saturday to close out the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs.