A valiant effort falls short, leaving Canadiens to lament what could have been

The Tampa Bay Lightning scored twice in the final 2:09 of the third period to come back and beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-2.

MONTREAL — You couldn’t take anything away from the Montreal Canadiens, except for Christian Dvorak and two points in the standings.

On Tuesday, the damage done to this already-depleted team was inflicted on three shifts. The first one left Dvorak grimacing, limping and clutching his knee after an awkward collision. The second one ended with former Canadien Corey Perry redirecting a Steven Stamkos pass with his knee to tie things up with 2:09 remaining in the third period. And the third one was the most devastating blow of all.

Montrealer Alex Killorn made something out of nothing and found Ondrej Palat on a mad dash to the net. The skilled forward roofed the puck with 37.1 seconds to go and, with that, broke the hearts of every player wearing a Canadiens sweater.

The clock ticked down and the Tampa Bay Lightning left the ice arms in air, celebrating their first win in their first game against the Canadiens since beating them in four of five of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

Before it happened, this was shaping up as Montreal’s most impressive win of the season. The Canadiens, down Carey Price, Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson, Jeff Petry, Sami Niku, Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson — and Dvorak for more than half the game — completely outworked a far superior Lightning side. They outplayed them in every way, too.

But they still ended up on the wrong side of a 3-2 score, and it hurt.

“It’s frustrating because we definitely deserved better,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme after the game, and he was right.

Ducharme and his players deserved to have that good feeling that’s been so elusive this season.

Even if a loss is more valuable in the grand scheme of things — and it is, with this one edging the Canadiens closer to last place in the NHL and every other one coming giving them better odds of landing the top pick in a draft being hosted in Montreal next summer — a win would’ve boosted morale.

Good efforts need to be rewarded at least some of the time, and the Canadiens put in a great one in this game.

Nick Suzuki, who scored a goal and added an assist to earn Points 99 and 100 in the 154th game of his career, should’ve been in position to celebrate afterwards.

Instead, he was stuck lamenting what could’ve been.

“(Something good is) always kind of what you’re looking for, especially in these tough times,” the 22-year-old said. “They obviously beat us in the Cup Final and we wanted to take it to them tonight.”

There was satisfaction to be had in the Canadiens doing things right from the start, with former Lightning centre Cedric Paquette setting the tone between Laurent Dauphin (36 games of NHL experience) and Michael Pezzetta (13 games of NHL experience), who were about as far removed as possible from Montreal’s success last summer.

The whole team played strong through the middle portion. Mike Hoffman banked one in off Jonathan Drouin to give them a 2-1 lead just 2:12 after Suzuki completed a great play by David Savard, who had received his Stanley Cup ring from the Lightning just a couple of hours before.

The Canadiens were inches away from taking a 3-1 lead in the third — first when Artturi Lehkonen broke in all by himself, and then when Drouin chased down a puck in the offensive zone with the Tampa net empty late in the game.

But Lehkonen’s shot hit the knob of Andrei Vasilevskiy’s stick on that first play, and that puck was just out of reach from Drouin on the second.

“It was right there for us, and it hits Perrs in the knee and goes in,” said Suzuki.

“Those are the bounces we’ve been getting so far,” he added.

Suzuki wasn’t making excuses. He also said he’s a big believer in making your own luck, and that was his acknowledgment the Canadiens have earned most of the bad that’s come their way since the start of the season.

They’ve had nights where the effort was far below standard, and some where it just hasn’t been good enough to win.

But this wasn’t one of those nights. Not for Dvorak, who will be re-evaluated Wednesday before likely joining the ridiculously long injured/ill list for the team, and not for anyone else on the Canadiens.

As Ducharme said, they’ll still take some positives out of it.

“I thought, with the puck, we created some good looks,” he said. “Without the puck, I thought we were at the right spots most of the night. We wanted to make sure we were solid as a block of five, and I think we did that tonight.”

Some young players stepped up, role players showed their worth, and the NHL mainstays—Suzuki, Hoffman, Drouin and Chiarot—led the charge.

Savard, who was as good as any of them, said it best: “It’s disappointing to come out of that game with zero points.”

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