The Montreal Canadiens stood toe-to-toe with the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning and didn’t flinch.
But they didn’t win, either. And we’re betting they’re not considering it a moral victory that they came into Tampa to face a rested Lightning team, just 24 hours after they beat the Florida Panthers 5-3, and tilted the ice — scoring another five goals and controlling the vast majority of play.
Not that the Canadiens should leave Florida with their heads down after losing to the top team in the NHL by a score of 6-5. They put in as honest of an effort as they have all season and did so without starting goaltender Carey Price at their disposal — and with a gas tank half empty. And they were 1:02 away from squeezing (at least) a point out of this game when Adam Erne scored his second of two third-period goals to give the Lightning their 13th win in their last 14 contests.
It was Tampa’s NHL-leading 17th come-from-behind win of the season, with the club’s latest comeback delivered in devastating fashion.
But the Canadiens are well intact, shuffling off to Dallas to face the Stars on Monday with a chance to finish this six-game road trip at 4-2-0.
Sure, this would’ve been their biggest win of the season. But there are many positives for them to take away from the loss.
Speaking of takeaways, here are the ones we jotted down from Saturday’s game.
Montreal’s power play could be coming alive
Andrew Shaw’s power-play marker got the Canadiens on the board on their second opportunity of the game.
It was the fifth time in Montreal’s last six games that they managed a power-play goal. Considering they came into Saturday’s game with the 30th-ranked power play in the league, connecting on just 17 of 129 opportunities, it’s a sign things might be swinging upward in that department.
The power-play goal also created the momentum that led to Kenny Agostino’s goal, which made it 2-0 Montreal a mere 16 seconds later.
A wild one until the end
If you paid to watch this hockey game, you got your money’s worth.
It wasn’t just about 11 goals being scored. The best games feature multiple lead changes and drastic momentum swings, and this one was chalk-full of them.
There were the goals the Canadiens got from Andrew Shaw and Kenny Agostino in the first period. And 22 seconds after Tampa tied the game with goals from Yanni Gourde and Anton Stralman, Jordie Benn wired one from the point to put Montreal back up 3-2.
A little less than eight minutes into the second period, Nikita Kucherov tied the game for the Lightning, and teammate Tyler Johnson made it 4-3 just 38 seconds later.
When Montreal’s Brett Kulak and Andrew Shaw scored 52 seconds apart to make it 5-4 Montreal with 6:49 to go in the second period, you got a sense more could be on its way before the end of the third.
Erne cashed in on a rebound chance with 10:24 left in the final frame, and he put his game-winning goal under the crossbar.
The Canadiens were all over the Lightning for most of the game, controlling the shot attempts 54-34 through two periods and limiting them to three shots on net through the first nine minutes of the third.
They had 18 shots compared to Tampa’s nine in the first period, and came out skating in the second to record another 14 shots.
But they just couldn’t open up a big enough lead against a team that’s been absolutely lethal for the last month — and for most of the NHL season.
Over a 12-0-1 stretch, the Lightning averaged five goals per game, allowed just over three on average, ran their power play at 36 per cent efficiency, and killed 89 per cent of the penalties they took. They were as healthy as they’ve been all season prior to Saturday’s game, rested and waiting at home, and they got out-worked for the majority of the night.
But they walked away unscathed thanks to the opportunism of their offence and a solid performance by Andrei Vasilevskiy, who improved to 2-0 against the Canadiens this season.
Antti Niemi couldn’t come up with the big saves
In a game where the Canadiens didn’t need him to be the difference, Price’s back-up didn’t give them a chance to win.
Niemi came up with big saves on Victor Hedman and Erne on a second-period penalty kill. He came up with bigger ones on Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli on a third-period penalty kill.
But Stralman’s goal that beat him in the first period was one the 35-year-old Finn should have stopped. The rebound he left for Erne on Tampa’s fifth goal should have been easily kicked to the boards on what was a soft point-shot from Stralman. And he failed to cut down the angle on what proved to be an excellent shot from Erne on the game-winner.
On Saturday morning, Canadiens coach Claude Julien didn’t strike the possibility that Price could be sufficiently recovered from his lower-body ailment to join the team in Dallas on Monday. If that proves to be the case, it’ll be great news both in the short and long term.