And with better goaltending, they likely would have earned some points in the standings for their effort against the league’s best, and hottest, team.
All of the narratives we’ve heard about the Canadiens this season - that they never back down, that they are able to bounce back, and that they can score in bunches - all came to pass in Tampa. They scored twice in 16 seconds to take a 2-0 lead. After allowing the Lightning to tie the game, the quickly took a 3-2 lead. They allowed Tampa to take a 4-3 lead, but then fought back for a 5-4 lead that they took into the third period.
It was a game that showed everyone who believes in this team how good they can be. And it also showed their critics that they can play against anyone and be competitive.
They were relentless in the offensive zone. They were creating scoring opportunities, and they had everyone contributing while shutting down Tampa’s best players. They were not backing down, and bringing the game to the Lightning in a way that not many teams have done in December.
The only team to have a better score-adjusted Corsi For against Tampa Bay this month was the Toronto Maple Leafs. The only team with a better Scoring Chance For percentage was the Philadelphia Flyers. The Canadiens not only performed well, they had one of the best performances against the Lightning of any team during their insane 12-0-1 month.
Quite honestly, they put together a performance that most teams in the league haven’t been capable of doing.
The only issue in their loss on Saturday came from the goaltending of Antti Niemi. His struggles forced the Canadiens to play scared in the third period, and the Lightning smelled that fear. The Canadiens plain and simple didn’t have confidence in their goaltender so they stopped playing their game. It’s possible that fatigue played a part, but I think professional athletes coming off of a week break are able to play back-to-back nights. That wasn’t it.
Montreal sat back in the third because they knew how important it was to come away with points in the standings, and in the end, they came up 68 seconds short and ended up with nothing. It was a cruel reminder how small this team’s margin of error is. Without their starting goaltender, their backup allowed just one goal too many.
Not coming away with anything from that performance is frustrating and it is disappointing. But the way they let the game slip away may provide a reminder to play their game for 60 minutes because this team isn’t built to sit back on a lead, especially after playing as well as they did for the opening 40 minutes.