The Canadiens aren’t going away.
They made that clear Tuesday night as they skated to a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning before a sold-out Bell Centre crowd.
It would be easy to chalk this win up to a relentless attack on minor-league goaltender Eddie Pasquale, who battled through a 45-shot barrage from the Canadiens.
But the key to this game was a solid team effort that stressed defence and discipline.
It starts with the line of Phillip Danault, with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher on the wings. As has been the case all season, they were matched against the opposition’s top line and that meant NHL scoring leader Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point.
The numbers tell the story. Stamkos and Kucherov each had one shot on goal; Point had two. Danault won 16 of 21 faceoffs, while Stamkos won four of 10 draws and Point won four of 11.
“They played last night, but they’re still a highly-skilled team,” said coach Claude Julien.”We were able to keep (their top line) off the scoreboard. We did a good job and we needed that.”
Earlier Tuesday, coach Julien said he hoped the Canadiens would use their win in Winnipeg Saturday as a blueprint for this game.
"It was a notch above,” Julien said. “We played a strong game against a team that makes things happen. They’re highly skilled from top to bottom. We needed a total effort and we played a solid third period.”
The teams were tied 2-2 going into the third, but Artturi Lehkonen scored the go-ahead goal and Max Domi added an insurance marker a few minutes later.
Lehkonen got the bounce when he took the rebound of a Victor Mete shot out of the air and pushed the loose puck home for his 11th goal of the season.
“It felt good,” Lehkonen said. “It was a good bounce for me and I haven’t had many bounces this year. Everyone create their own luck, but it felt good.”
There was one major difference from the Winnipeg game. With the return of Paul Byrpn and Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the fourth line with Nate Thompson, Julien was able to roll four lines. On Saturday night, he shortened his bench and went with three lines for the final nine minutes.
“We like to play with a lot of pace and we’re able to do that when we roll four lines,” said Thompson, who kicked off the Montreal scoring with his first goal as a Canadien.
Thompson is generally viewed as a defensive type who can kill penalties and win faceoffs, but he showed that he’s capable of keeping up with his fleeter linemates.
“I’ve always been a good skater and, in my first practice with this team I saw that I had to work to match the pace on this team,” Thompson said.
For the second consecutive game, the Canadiens faced a team with a top power play and they took that element out of the game by not taking penalties.
The win kept the Canadiens in a playoff race that has three teams battling for two wild-card spots separated by a single point. The Canadiens are currently out, but Julien said he was excited to still have a chance.
“I really like this time,” he said. “It’s like the playoffs and I want the guys to enjoy it. There’s nothing like experience and these (young) guys are getting experience,”
Looking ahead, Julien said he relishes the idea of a first-round playoff series against the Lightning.
“I’d like to think this game is the first in an eight-game series.”