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The Habs headed into Tampa Bay on Saturday looking to sweep the Florida portion of their road trip.  Unfortunately, a tough night for Antti Niemi proved costly as the Lightning picked up the 6-5 win.

With Carey Price injured, Claude Julien opted to give Niemi his second straight start while former Lightning forward Matthew Peca drew in against his former team with Nicolas Deslauriers getting the night off.  The rest of the forward units and defence pairings remained unchanged from Friday.

Tampa got off to a strong start as Montreal looked disjointed in their end but the Habs were able to get through that unscathed.  Just past the two-minute mark, Jeff Petry had a good chance off the rush stopped by Andrei Vasilevskiy.  That seemed to wake Montreal up.  Seconds later, Ryan McDonagh was called for delay of game, sending the Canadiens to the man advantage.  They had a couple of decent chances but weren’t able to beat the top penalty kill in the league.

Less than two minutes after that power play, the Habs got another one when Nikita Kucherov was sent off for hooking.  The first 90 seconds were terrible from a Montreal perspective as they couldn’t get anything going.  Eventually, they were able to gain the zone and Jesperi Kotkaniemi had time to slow down and set up.  He sent a pass to Tomas Tatar at the point who fired one on goal.  The rebound came out to Andrew Shaw and he potted the rebound to get the Habs on the board.

Montreal came out for the next shift with their post-power play unit and they wasted little time.  Phillip Danault looked to do a wraparound but instead fed it to Jordie Benn at the point.  He sent a sharp pass to Kenny Agostino at the edge of the crease and he tapped it home.  For the second straight game, Montreal had a 2-0 lead on the road.

Unfortunately for them, they blew it for the second straight game.  Four minutes after the Agostino goal, Ryan McDonagh got in on the attack and threw a cross-ice feed towards the point.  Adam Erne was there and one-timed it towards the goal.  Yanni Gourde got a stick on the shot and redirected it past Niemi to get the home side on the board.

Just under three minutes after that, Tatar got caught trying to make too fancy of a play exiting the zone.  His blind pass found its way to Anton Stralman who quickly blasted on past Niemi on a shot the Montreal netminder would like to have back.

Despite losing the lead, the Habs came back.  On the next shift, Danault won a board battle and skated towards the middle of Tampa’s zone.  He sent a pass to Jordie Benn and his long shot eluded Vasilevskiy to give the Canadiens the lead, one they carried to the room.  Shots on goal in the first were 18-9 for the Habs.

Both teams traded chances in the early portion of the second period before Jeff Petry took a retaliatory cross-checking penalty.  Not only did that give Tampa Bay a power play, but it also stopped a potential Jonathan Drouin break.  The Lightning wasted little time on the man advantage as Nikita Kucherov one-timed a shot past Niemi just three seconds in.

The Lightning picked up their first lead on the next shift.  They broke out two-on-one but Victor Mete hurried back to even it out.  As a result, Tyler Johnson slowed down and worked a well-played give-and-go with former Hab Mikhail Sergachev.  Johnson got the puck back in the slot and had a yawning cage to beat Niemi.

However, the Habs came back.  Off a faceoff in the offensive zone, Tatar got it to Brett Kulak who one-timed it home for his first goal in a Montreal uniform.  Less than a minute later, Artturi Lehkonen skated it into the Tampa end and sent a perfect cross-ice feed for Shaw who one-timed home his second of the game.

Shaw then gave Tampa a chance to tie it before the end of the period as he was sent off for hooking.  Steven Stamkos hit the post with the man advantage but that’s as close as they could get as Montreal retained their one-goal lead that they came into the period with.  Shots on goal were 14-10 for the road side in the frame.

Montreal had a chance to double their lead early in the third when Alex Killorn went off for high sticking.  However, the power play looked a lot like most of their chances with the man advantage where nothing went well.  Tampa got another man advantage of their own a few minutes later when Brendan Gallagher got a slashing call.  The Lightning had some chances as did Montreal when it looked like Michael Chaput had a lane to the goal before it was broken up by Victor Hedman.  The Habs did manage to kill off the power play.

Unfortunately for Montreal, they couldn’t hold onto the league much longer.  Just a couple of minutes after the Gallagher penalty ended, Adam Erne did some good work along the boards and the puck went back to the point.  Stralman’s shot got to Niemi who did a terrible job controlling the rebound.  Instead of smothering it, it bounced to Erne who had plenty of room to put it into the net after Victor Mete didn’t tie him up.

A few minutes later, a weak wrister from Brayden Point got behind Niemi although he was able to bat it away.  However, the damage was done.  From there on out, Montreal’s strategy shifted to a very conservative one with a goal towards not letting anything get through to Niemi as anything that came close had a shot at going in.

They were able to kill off most of the remaining time but not all of it.  With just over a minute to go, Gourde cycled the puck in the corner before feeding a quick pass to Erne who sniped home his second of the period on a short side shot with Shea Weber providing the screen.  The Habs quickly pulled the goalie and blocked a couple of Tampa chances but weren’t able to muster anything of their own.  Montreal was the better team for large segments of the game but came up empty-handed in the end.

Vasilevskiy made 33 saves for the win but he was not at his best.  Meanwhile, Niemi turned aside 26 of 32 shots and while some of those goals weren’t stoppable, he’s largely to blame for the poor outcome in this one.  Both teams had some success on the power play, going 1/3 apiece.

HW Habs 3 Stars

1st Star: Andrew Shaw – He was quite noticeable in this one – Montreal’s third line was their best.  He got to the goalmouth for his first goal while his second was a surprisingly strong shot.  Also worth noting is that he effectively took over faceoff duties from Jesperi Kotkaniemi and handled himself quite well there as well.  With the Max Domi line being quiet the last few games, it wouldn’t surprise me if Shaw was moved back up to that line soon.

Stats: 2 goals, even rating, 4 shots, 1 hit, 8/15 faceoffs, 17:19 TOI

2nd Star: Jordie Benn – There are nights where it’s fair to question why he played so much.  There aren’t supposed to be nights where it’s fair to question whether or not he should have played more but that may very well be the case.  He was effective at both ends of the rink while also having Montreal’s best 5-on-5 possession numbers.  If Claude Julien decides to make a change on defence to get Karl Alzner a game, it shouldn’t be at Benn’s expense.

Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +3 rating, 1 shot, 14:50 TOI

3rd Star: Jesperi Kotkaniemi – There have been quite a few games lately where he has been quiet.  This was not one of those – not even close.  From the outset, he played with poise and made strong decisions in the offensive zone regarding when to pass and when to shoot.  Kotkaniemi didn’t score but he had a few good chances and was a big part of the effectiveness of that trio.

Stats: 1 assist, -1 rating, 5 shots, 2 takeaways, 3/4 faceoffs, 13:51 TOI

Honourable Mention: Phillip Danault – This is really turning into quite the road trip for Danault who had his second three-point game of this stretch.  He logged heavy minutes and did the bulk of the heavy lifting at the faceoff dot and fared pretty well all in all.

Stats: 3 assists, +3 rating, 2 shots, 11/23 faceoffs, 19:30 TOI