The Canadiens entered Tampa Bay on Saturday with only two wins from their last 10 games, while the Lightning has been a force to reckon with at home, and starting goaltender Brian Elliott even more so. The Habs would start the game shorthanded as Kaiden Guhle was reported to be injured again, and Jonathan Drouin – dressed due to the league rules – would be warming the bench rather than playing, due to having been late to a team meeting.
The Lightning had a ceremony before the game to honour the entry into the Hall of Fame of two Canadiens staff members, head coach Martin St-Louis and consultant Vincent Lecavalier, as well as Esposito. It was great to see two more Canadiens members in the Hall, even if their prior careers in Tampa Bay may have had something to do with those selections.
Alas, the pre-game honours were all that St-Louis could take home with him from the game, as the Canadiens were not quite enough to match the Lightning on the night, falling by a score of 5-3,
One apiece, to start
The teams started on a very cautious note, with neither team willing to give up the first scoring opportunity of the game. It took three and a half minutes until Mike Matheson finally put an end to that, as he started a nice give-and-go play with his defensive pair, David Savard. Elliott made the save, but at least someone put the puck on the net.
That seemed to wake up the Lightning, who followed up with their own attack and pressure, resulting in two quick shots on Samuel Montembeault, but the Habs’ young goalie made two solid saves to keep his net clean.
Five minutes in, Savard was forechecking in the Tampa zone and won a puck battle on the right-side boards. He sent a pass to Suzuki in front of the net, and Suzuki then used his vision to find Mike Hoffman at the bottom of the left-side faceoff circle. Hoffman was ready, and one-timed the puck high on the blocker side, giving Montreal the first lead of the game.
The goal did not energize Montreal, though, as the Lightning kept up the pressure, and at 11:31 it finally paid off for them. As Justin Barron lost his stick in the defensive zone, Josh Anderson handed over his, to ensure the defencemen both had sticks. But that did not relieve the Tampa pressure, and Anderson was reduced to trying to block a Nicholas Paul shot by kneeling in front of it. The shot was just wide of Anderson’s skate, though, and Victor Hedman tipped it in just inside the left post; Montembeault had no chance on this one.
With just under two minutes remaining, the Lightning had yet another opportunity, as Ross Colton got the puck in front of Montembeault. This time Montmbeault got his right pad out, though, and kept the puck out of the net.
The shots in the period were 13-6 in favour of the Lightning, and high-danger chances an even grimmer 5-0.
A second lead
The second period started with continued Tampa Bay pressure, and it paid off just before five minutes were gone, as Brandon Hagel tapped in a rebound from a Nikita Kucherov shot.
That did not last long, though, and about 90 seconds later, Nick Suzuki skated the puck into the Tampa zone along the left-side boards, then dropped it for Anderson. Anderson then sent it to Denis Gurianov, who was parked at the bottom of the left-side faceoff circle, and Gurianov did what he does best, drilling the puck into the net, behind Elliott to tie the game back up.
Montembeault had to get his right pad out again at the midway point of the period, but he blocked the shot, keeping things tied.
Tampa Bay was assessed the first penalty of the game, as Hagel was called for hooking Rem Pitlick at 11:55. The power play did not look impressive, and the Lightning were on a shorthanded attack in a flash. However, as Hagel stumbled in front of Montembeault, Barron sent Hoffman on a quick attack. Hoffman spotted Jesse Ylonen coming in, but on the left side whereas Hoffman was on the right side. A quick pass and Ylonen scored his first NHL power play goal, using the one-timer that he has perfected in Laval. 3-2 for the bleu, blanc et rouge.
Hoffman, like Hagel, was busy all over the scoresheet, and with 2:35 left in the period, he was called on a late hooking penalty. St-Louis had Rafael Harvey-Pinard acting as the always-dangerous Kucherov’s overcoat, and the young forward was very effective in that assignment.
And this time the Habs had designs on a shorthanded attack: just before the halfway mark of the penalty, Alex Belzile broke out with Anderson. A quick pass to the left and forward, Anderson picked it up but couldn’t tuck it under the pads of Elliott.
The Lightning held a 12-11 edge in shots in the period but this it was the Habs with the high-danger chance edge, 3-1.
One goal, two goals, three goals
Michael Pezzetta was called for interference on Mikhail Sergachev in front of Montembeault’s net at 2:51, giving Tampa another power play opportunity. And it took the Lightning only 24 seconds to put the puck in the net: Sergachev carried the puck into the Montreal zone and behind the net, and passed it to Kucherov in the slot. The veteran forward spotted Steven Stamkos on the left, and a quick pass was followed by a rapid one-timer by Stamkos, too fast for Montembeault to be able to cover the angle.
Hagel had another opportunity a little over a minute later, as he attacked on a Stamkos pass, but this time Matheson was there and able to break up the play.
But the Lightning were not done yet. At 5:58, Sergachev took a shot from near the blue line, with heavy traffic in front of Montembeault, and Hagel, mixing it up in the scrum, got his stick on it to deflect it past Montembeault and into the net, giving Tampa a 4-3 lead.
The Habs threw everything they had, bar Drouin, at Elliott, but could not get the puck past him in the third period. As the Habs defencemen pinched, the Tampa counterattacks were getting increasingly dangerous. Montembeault held off the attack as the Lightning peppered him with 16 shots.
However, inevitably, the Canadiens suffered an empty-net goal once they actually succeeded in pulling Montembeault for an extra attacker. Hagel did that, sealing the victory for Tampa and a hat trick for himself, with 43.6 seconds left.
Third-period shots were 16-4 for Tampa, and high-danger scoring chances were 5-3.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Mike Hoffman (1g, 1a, 6 shots, 18:18 TOI) was everywhere in this game, and could have easily scored two or three goals. His pass to Ylonen for the third Habs goal was a beauty, showing that he can pass, too.
Second Star: Nick Suzuki (0g, 2a, 0 goals, 25:32 TOI) took on a huge workload, over 25 minutes, with the Habs playing with only 11 forwards. Two assists on the night were good if not spectacular for the Habs’ captain.
Third Star: Joel Edmundson (0g, 0a, 0 shots, 22:36 TOI) was solid on defence, breaking up numerous plays, keeping the front of the net clear, and doing what he does best: defending.
Honourable Mention: Jesse Ylonen (1g, 0a, 1 shot, 15:13 TOI) demonstrated that his one-timer can be a dangerous weapon in the NHL as well as in the AHL. Now, if they could only get him to shoot more.