To say Saturday night’s showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning was a huge game for the Montreal Canadiens would be understating things. The Lightning were neck and neck with the Canadiens in a highly combative Atlantic Division, they however had the benefits of games in hand, making this a “must-win” game for Montreal.
Montreal came in riding high, having crushed the Winnipeg Jets with ease before the Christmas holiday to close out their trek through Western Canada. They were also bolstered by the return of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who had missed eight games after a dirty hit by Nikita Zadorov left him with a concussion. It was also a marquee match up between the pipes as Carey Price squared off with Andrei Vasilevskiy.
It was the returning Kotkaniemi who made the early impact, finding the back of the net just over two minutes into the period. A rush was broken up by the Lightning, and Kotkaniemi was able to collect the loose puck, load up a heavy wrist shot and blast the puck over Vasilevskiy’s shoulder for the early lead.
Montreal then refused to relinquish any control of the puck, keeping Tampa off the shot clock while they piled on chances in droves. Even when the Lightning gained any zone time, their shots were kept wide of the net, or stopped from even getting there at all.
Just past the halfway point of the period Max Domi flew into the zone, ripping a shot that caught the iron behind Vasilevskiy, and seemingly staying out. However, a few minutes later the horn went off, stopping play and an official review confirmed that Domi’s shot did cross the line, and suddenly it was a two goal game.
After a TV timeout, Tampa Bay had a long meeting by the bench, and subsequently found their offensive legs. They piled up a nine to three shots advantage after the stoppage, and sometimes it only takes a small break to get going. Ryan McDonagh took a shot that bounced across Price’s crease, and right to Alex Killorn who buried it to cut Montreal’s lead in half just 58 seconds before the end of the period.
It wasn’t long before Tampa Bay tied things up in the second period either, with Steven Stamkos getting his 800th career point on the goal. Stamkos walked into the slot, and Max Domi drifted to cover the wrong man allowing the Lightning captain to fire his shot off. It hit the glass behind Price, bounced back over the net, and Stamkos swatted it home to level the score 94 seconds into the second period.
Things only continued to get worse, as an odd-man rush created a chance on Price who was unable to control the rebound. With the puck right in front of him, Mitchell Stephens chipped it in for his first career NHL goal.
Tampa then continued to throttle a shell-shocked Canadiens team, hemming them in and generating dangerous chances seemingly at will while Montreal hung on for dear life as the game neared the halfway point. Tampa piled on another goal, as a heavy shot by Alex Killorn trickled in off of Price’s pad and slowly into the net to push the Lightning’s advantage to two goals.
The game went to a break after the goal, where Claude Julien absolutely lit into his side, and it appeared to be message well-received. Just 14 seconds after Killorn’s goal, the Canadiens top line drove into the Tampa zone, with Brendan Gallagher firing a low, hard shot off of Vasilevskiy’s pads, and Ben Chiarot potting home the rebound to cut the lead down to just one.
55 seconds into the final period and Tampa had their two goal lead back. A lackadaisical clearing pass was kept in the zone, and after a big save by Price, the puck was left trickling around in front of his net. Anthony Cirelli was not picked up by Jeff Petry, and he poked the puck past Price’s pad and into the net for a fifth goal for the Lightning.
As Montreal sought out some goals of their own, they tried to be too fancy in too many circumstances. Max Domi and Jeff Petry each tried one too many toe drags, and had their chances broken up into rushes in the other direction. The Canadiens got a bit of luck as the period went on, a shot seemed to tip off Tyler Johnson and into the net, but a quick review found he directed it by Price with a high stick, keeping the deficit at two goals.
A blindside hit by Mathieu Joseph on Cale Fleury not only drew a crowd of Canadiens sweaters, but also a Montreal power play, their first of the game. The power play was too predictable however, and many of the attempted passes were batted out of the zone as Montreal desperately tried to find the same swagger they had in the first period.
A careless high stick by Patrick Maroon sent Montreal back to the power play with just over three minutes remaining, and with Carey Price making a dash to the bench it was a long six on four power play. While it was not pretty, a quick passing play allowed Jordan Weal to shovel a chance on net, and a fortuitous bounce got the puck over the line, and cut the Lightning lead to just one goal.
That was the last chance for Montreal as the Lightning held on to secure both points, and set the stage for a rematch next week at the Bell Centre. For the Canadiens, they have a game with the Florida Panthers tomorrow as they look to shake off a crucial loss to a division rival.