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Canadiens @ Lightning game recap: Close, but no cigar

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The Canadiens offence came to play, but so did the Lightning’s.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The second half of a back-to-back is never easy, especially after a physical contest the previous night. Tomas Tatar paced the offence on Friday, while the defence stayed solid in front of Antti Niemi against the Panthers.

The Montreal Canadiens were certainly the underdogs heading into Tampa Bay to square off with the Lightning. Tampa is a different animal, however. Since returning from injury, Andrei Vasilevskiy is undefeated, and captain Steven Stamkos had 14 goals in the month of December at the start of the game. Montreal needed to find their game quickly, or risk being washed out by a potent Lightning team.

Tampa immediately spent the opening few minutes inside Montreal’s zone. Both Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov had great looks that Antti Niemi closed the door on.

A Ryan McDonagh delay of game penalty brought out the Canadiens’ power play, which immediately surrendered a short-handed chance against before settling in and putting some pressure on the Lightning penalty-killers.

While Tampa continued to pressure, Montreal wasn’t allowing many chances to come close to Niemi, and with their speed game they returned to the power play, courtesy of Nikita Kucherov hooking Victor Mete. This time the Canadiens’ man advantage found paydirt. Jesperi Kotkaniemi patiently waited to find a lane and dished off to Tatar. The Slovak put the puck on the net and Andrew Shaw poked the loose puck in for his 10th goal of the year.

The Canadiens followed up this great opening jab with a massive hook just 16 seconds later. Montreal gained the zone with possession, and Phillip Danault left the puck to Jordie Benn at the point. Benn let a low shot fly and Kenny Agostino redirected the shot past Vasilevskiy for a two-goal lead.

Kotkaniemi nearly added a third goal in close but the Tampa netminder slammed the door shut. Still reeling, the Lightning needed a quick answer, and they found it thanks to Yanni Gourde’s deft deflection of an Adam Erne shot.

They continued to push, and Anton Stralman rewarded their efforts with his first goal in 15 games.

But the Tampa joy would be short-lived. Danault’s strong puck pursuit kept him in the play, and he picked out Benn at the point. The defender ripped a bullet of a slapshot into the upper corner of the net for a late-first-period lead.

Niemi had to be sharp to start the second period, turning away a big chance in close by Victor Hedman to keep Montreal’s lead intact. From there, Montreal made their home in Tampa’s zone, continuing to pepper Vasilevskiy with shots from all angles.

Jeff Petry was whistled for a retaliation penalty, and it took less than five seconds for Tampa Bay to take advantage. Right off of the draw, Kucherov collected a pass and blasted a shot over Niemi to tie the game.

Thirty-eight seconds later, Tyler Johnson dropped a pass to Mikhail Sergachev, who returned the puck to him, and he had no issue beating Niemi to give Tampa a lead.

Then Montreal got back up off the canvas, dusted themselves off, and fought right back into the game. Another faceoff win by Danault allowed Tatar to feed the puck back to Brett Kulak at the point. Kulak fired a seeing-eye shot that found nothing but net for his first in a Canadiens uniform.

They kept pushing. A smart pass by Weber sprung Artturi Lehkonen in the Tampa zone, and the Finnish winger picked out Andrew Shaw with a perfect pass. Shaw made no mistake, firing his second goal of the night through Vasilevskiy and restoring the Canadiens’ lead.

A late Lightning power play didn’t yield a goal this time, thanks in part to Steven Stamkos improbably missing from point-blank range. After falling behind, Montreal was more than happy to head into the second intermission with their well-deserved lead back.

Already on their heels after a pair of late Canadiens goals, Tampa kicked off the third period with a high-sticking penalty less than a minute in. They couldn’t convert, but again kept the Lightning on the back foot and kept the play out of their end.

Brendan Gallagher, much to the chagrin of Claude Julien, got the hook for a slashing call, forcing the Montreal penalty-killers into another crucial situation. When challenged the penalty kill rose to the occasion and put a potent Tampa offence on ice for the time being.

A juicy rebound from Niemi brought a halt to the Canadiens’ march toward a win. Anton Stralman let the shot go and Niemi played the rebound right in front of his net. Adam Erne was right there to swat the puck home to tie the game once again.

Nervy moments followed, with even soft shots trickling through Niemi, and nearly over the line before the Finnish netminder swiped it out of his crease. Tampa continued to own the offensive-zone time as the minutes ticked away, and Montreal seemed to be content to hold the fort defensively, making as much of a wall around their netminder as they could to get at least a point in overtime.

Life isn’t always fair in the NHL however, and Erne made sure the Canadiens paid for their passive approach late in the game. His second goal put Tampa up by a goal, and Montreal couldn’t muster the offence in the final minute to tie it with their net empty.

It was a bitter pill to swallow after dominating much of the game on a back-to-back, against a stacked team, but it also has a positive side. It shows Montreal can stand there and go toe-to-toe with the NHL’s best, even with a dismal night between the pipes.