Through 65 minutes, each goaltender had been solved only once.
But with good system play throughout and just enough offense, the Lightning squeaked out a 2-1 victory in the shootout over Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday in Montreal.
The Lightning opened up with good pressure and structure, something that is to be expected (and needed) with Steven Stamkos out of the lineup. The Bolts were able to quickly work the puck through the neutral zone and into Montreal's end in the first five minutes of the game and jumped out to an early lead in shots on goal as a result, forcing the Habs to work just to cleanly exit their own end and get off the ice.
After being handled in a similar fashion by Boston the night before, it was encouraging to see the Bolts get out to a good start in the first Stamkos-less game since 2009.
The Bolts were rewarded with a lucky bounce early, as a soft Eric Brewer wrist shot from the left wall was tipped in by Ryan Malone from the seat of his pants to give the Lightning an early 1-0 lead. The goal was the first real scoring chance of the game, and even then, was more luck than anything else as the puck simply glanced off Malone and in past Carey Price.
A pair of penalties in the middle of the first period gave the Canadiens some life, but the Lightning penalty kill -- on a hot streak as of late -- stayed hot and kept the Habs off the board, limiting the Habs to few shots and fewer good scoring chances. Perhaps Montreal's best chance in the first came at 5v5 with 7:41 remaining in the period, when Rene Bourque found the puck on his stick while attempting to screen Ben Bishop. Bourque's no-look backhand towards a partially-empty net ended up going wide.
Tampa Bay would go on two kill one more penalty in the opening frame, spending the last two minutes of the first killing off a tripping call to Mark Barberio, playing a regular defensive shift with Eric Brewer on the bottom pairing due to injuries to Sami Salo and Keith Aulie.
At least against Tampa Bay, Montreal's power play seemed to run everything through PK Subban, who looked to shoot the puck at every opportunity and was able to get it in on Ben Bishop with regularity. Subban finished the night with a staggering (and game-high) 8 shots on goal, many of them on the man advantage as he displayed his acumen there. But the Lightning were able to limit second chance opportunities with a good combination of rebound control from Ben Bishop and puck retrieval by the Lightning penalty killers, not allowing their coverage of the slot to break down into a scramble that almost always seems to result in a goal against.
In spite of seeing no chances with the power play while Montreal saw 3, the Lightning ended the first period leading in shots, 10-8, thanks to some solid 5v5 play and an actualization of Jon Cooper's insistence that more shots on goal are a necessity moving forward, particularly without Steven Stamkos, who is one of the best on the team at creating shots. That said, a most of the shots were from the perimeter, and chances were even at two apiece through 20 minutes.
Tampa Bay started to take over in the second period, forcing Montreal into a cycle of defending in their own zone for extended periods, working to get a clear and a change before going right back to own-zone defense. The Bolts entered into the offensive third quickly and with ease and forced the Habs into a dump-and-chase game that kept sustained pressure out of the Tampa Bay end, as the Bolts looked to prevent as many shots and scoring chances as possible. The even bigger commitment to team defense with Stamkos out of the lineup was evident in the way the Lightning bottled up a solid top-9 forward group for the Canadiens, especially in the middle period with Montreal trailing.
A too many men penalty on the Canadiens stifled one of their only real opportunities for transition offense and sent the Lightning right back into Carey Price's end with an extra skater, but Price was up to the task, making some terrific saves including a very athletic one on Teddy Purcell off a cross-slot feed from Martin St. Louis.
Later in the period, an apparent 3-on-1 break for the Canadiens was broken up by a pair of sound defensive efforts on the part of Ondrej Palat, who flew back to his own zone on the backcheck to break up a drop pass to the trailer then got in front of a shot from the right half wall, blocking it harmlessly to the corner and negating what looked like a terrific opportunity for the Habs to even the score.
With two minutes remaining in the second, Tyler Johnson took a pass in the slot from Richard Panik and fired a wrist shot low and away that Carey Price kicked to the corner. Ryan Malone recovered the puck while Johnson followed his shot to the net. Malone fed Radko Gudas for a hard slap shot that appeared to go into the net and bounce hard back out, but the on-ice official emphatically waved his arms to signal "no-goal", and play continued.
At the next stoppage -- after a flurry by the Habs -- the play was reviewed in Toronto. Even on the Montreal broadcast, the video clearly shows the puck going into the net, but the referees overruled the War Room and declared "no goal due to incidental contact with the goaltender." Tyler Johnson was in Carey Price's crease a split-second before the Gudas shot and can be seen working to get out of the way as the shot comes in and enters the net.
It's a questionable call at best and one that certainly seems to have been very fortunate for the Habs. More than one have suggested that the ultimate call was an attempt for the referee, who had a clear view of the shot from the left circle and blew the call on the ice at the time of the play, to save face for his mistake:
The ref "informing" Toronto of "incidental contact" is just petulance from a ref that knew his crew blew the call. Simple as that.— Pete (@JollyMeanGiant) November 13, 2013
Whether that's the case or not, it was a tough break for a Lightning squad that was battling hard to create offense without their best player and probably deserved that one after a couple of great shifts with long-lasting offensive zone possession.
Tampa Bay ended up out-shooting the Habs 13-5 in the middle frame, taking control of the game territorially but not expanding their lead on the scoreboard due to some heroic play in net by Canadiens netminder Carey Price, who made a big statement in front of Lightning and Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman with his play tonight that he ought to be considered the frontrunner for the starting goalie position in Sochi 2014.
The Bolts began the third period the way you might expect a team to when on the road with a one-goal lead -- conservative, smart, safe. They looked to attack when they could but were perfectly content to chip and change if stood up at the attacking blue line, and every forward line was looking to get back quickly into the defensive zone to prevent any chance for transition offense by the Habs.
Even then, Montreal found a way to create chances, including a nice feed through to Alex Galchenyuk early on for a partial break that was snuffed out from behind by a deft stick check from Radko Gudas. Galchenyuk missed the puck as he skated in on Bishop and the puck slid slowly into the pads to keep the 1-0 Tampa Bay lead intact.
Ben Bishop had to make a few spectacular saves of his own late in the third with Montreal pressing for the equalizer, including a couple of brilliant saves in tight against the Tomas Plekanec line with about 5 minutes remaining in regulation before Danny Briere finally broke through on a tip-in goal in front with time winding down. There was a brief review, but the goal was allowed to stand, tying the score at 1-1.
A high-sticking call to Rene Bourque with 3:33 remaining put the Lightning on the power play with a chance to win it in regulation, but Price continued to stonewall the Bolts from everywhere including a quick one-timer from the slot by JT Brown on the ensuing man advantage.
In an apparent effort to give the game away before securing even a point, the Canadiens took another penalty in the final two minutes, this one a faceoff violation to Lars Eller for closing his hand on the puck, putting the Lightning back on the power play for the final 1:06 of regulation time.
Unable to find a winner, the Lightning started off the extra session skating 4-on-3 when, with 15 seconds remaining on the penalty to Eller, Andrei Markov cleared the puck up over the glass, earning a delay of game penalty and giving the Lightning a very brief 5-on-3 power play, prompting Jon Cooper to use his timeout to draw up a potential game-winner. But an important offensive zone draw was lost by Tyler Johnson to Tomas Plekanec, allowing the Habs to clear and reset with a one-man disadvantage instead.
Carey Price had to come up with a few more unbelievable saves, stopping Ryan Malone and Ondrej Palat on great chances in front, to send the game to the shootout, where Ben Bishop stopped all three shooters he faced and Valtteri Filppula converted his 3rd of 3 attempts on the year for the Bolts to give the Lightning a 2-1 victory and a much-deserved bonus point.
- Ben Bishop was terrific again, stopping 28 of 29 Montreal shots (22 of 23 at even strength) for a .966 save percentage...
- ...and he wasn't even the best goalie in this game. Carey Price was near-perfect throughout regulation and overtime, stopping 44 of 45 Tampa Bay tries (35 of 36 at evens) for a ridiculous .978 save percentage. The Atlantic Division has very, very good goaltending this year, and that is something the Lightning will have to contend with sans Steven Stamkos moving forward.
- Valtteri Filppula is the only Lightning skater other than Steven Stamkos to convert on a shootout attempt this season. He improved to 3-for-3 this year with the game-clincher against the Habs.
- With Sami Salo out to injury, Victor Hedman logged his biggest time on the power play all season, finishing the night with 25:03 of total time on ice and over five minutes of man advantage time. While there were no points to show for it tonight, he moved the puck well, got 5 shots on net, and created offensive opportunities with the extra-man time given.
- Contrary to all the speculation, Brett Connolly was the forward moved to center to fill out the Lightning lineup, at least for one night. He opened between Martin St. Louis and Alex Killorn and finished the night with 12:18 time on ice, second unit power play duties, and a solid 50% faceoff winning percentage. Not a bad debut as a (top line?) center, but still a lot of room to grow.
- The Lightning controlled 58.5% of all shot attempts in perhaps their most complete puck possession effort of the season, on the back half of a back-to-back and without Steven Stamkos and Sami Salo no less. This one is a good road map to follow for staying competitive without number 91 -- a simple, efficient game with smart puck movement and control throughout while committing to defensive responsibilities to prevent shots and scoring chances for the other team. Getting into high-scoring games with a depleted and young lineup is not a recipe for success.
- The bottom line might seem like an odd landing place for Ryan Malone, but his strengths (and weaknesses) actually suit the role well. He doesn't have the straight line speed or endurance to play heavy top-6 minutes with the fast forwards Jon Cooper deploys, so much like Eric Brewer, a reduced 5v5 role has actually helped improve his game. Skating with Nate Thompson and BJ Crombeen, that trio scored the team's only non-shootout goal (a Malone tip of an Eric Brewer shot) and all three were over 75% Corsi For for the night, which is outstanding control of play.