For all the talk of playing "their best game of the series", the Tampa Bay Lightning looked like they were just going to show more of the same on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
After controversy over a disallowed Tampa Bay goal in Game 3, the Lightning had another, similar situation in Game 4 -- and this time, they got the call.
Fans who have been calling for goaltender Anders Lindback's head even got their wish, as he was replaced by Krister's Gudlevskis partway through the 2nd period.
All of these things happened, and Tampa Bay still had no answer for the faster, more efficient, more persistent Habs team that won their fourth consecutive game against the Bolts after winning just once in four tries during the regular season. They'll advance to face the winner of the Boston Bruins/Detroit Red Wings series, while Tampa Bay is sent home with a rude awakening of just what it takes to win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs: more than they showed in any of the four games.
The first period started off much like the first of the other three games -- Montreal immediately jumped on the puck and never let the Lightning play with it. They didn't score, but like Game 3, had a golden scoring opportunity just seconds in following a horrid defensive breakdown in front of Lindback.
Another one followed just moments later, as Mark Barberio (inserted along with Mike Kostka and Keith Aulie due to injuries to Sami Salo and Radko Gudas) inexplicably left the front of the net to try and double the puck carrier, leaving Danny Briere unmarked from the blue line in for an easy tap-in goal and another early 1-0 Montreal lead.
The Bolts spent most of the period on their heels, struggling to clear their own end or penetrate into the Montreal zone as they have all series. Poor neutral zone play was the culprit again late in the first as the Habs turned a misplay by Cedric Paquette near the red line into quick transition offense and Lars Eller blasted a long, stoppable shot past Lindback for a 2-0 lead.
Shots ended up 15-6 in the first period in favor of the Habs, and things didn't look much better in the second. Steven Stamkos was called for a trip on Alexei Emelin, and was visibly frustrated with the Habs' defenseman, who appeared to help sell the call on the play.
On the ensuing power play, a misplay by Emelin behind the net allowed Ondrej Palat to take the puck and jam it past Carey Price for a shorthanded tally that gave the Lightning a sliver of hope in a game where they were again being dominated at 5v5.
Unfortunately, barely a minute later, a routine slap shot from the right faceoff dot by Brendan Gallagher eluded an unscreened Anders Lindback, putting the Habs back up by a pair and ending Lindback's night (perhaps his career, with the Lightning at least). Rookie netminder Kristers Gudlevskis, who had appeared once earlier in the series in relief, entered the game with 3 career NHL shots faced in the playoffs and 2 career NHL playoff saves.
Whether it was the goaltending change and renewed offensive effort or passive play from the coasting Habs (or some combination of the two), the Lightning finally started to sustain offensive pressure in the third period, cycling the puck, forcing Carey Price to move around in his net, and keeping the puck in for entire shifts.
Victor Hedman broke through with an ugly goal after a big save by Gudlevskis at the other end, as Hedman flipped the puck off Carey Price's back and into the net while standing well below the goal line to bring the Bolts within a goal and with plenty of time left in the third.
A few minutes later, the extended zone time paid off again as a harmless centering feed ricocheted to Tyler Johnson in the slot, where he was able to snap one past Price and tie the game with 13:29 remaining.
With the Lightning buzzing for seemingly the first time in the series, it was a late penalty call that ultimately undid them. Cedric Paquette was indeed guilty of tripping, but the foul had no bearing on the play and was exactly the type of meaningless obstruction that is normally overlooked in the playoffs, particularly in late, tied, elimination games. Bur the whistle blew and that sent Montreal on a 5v4 advantage for essentially the final two minutes of the game.
In spite of their best penalty killing efforts, a long shot by Thomas Vanek was partially blocked by Andrej Sustr then batted down and between Gudlevskis' legs, where it trickled into the net for a power play tally, the first of the playoffs for Max Pacioretty and the game-winner with under a minute left.
- Following the announcement that both Radko Gudas and Sami Salo were injured, Keith Aulie, Mark Barberio, and Mike Kostka were inserted into the lineup as replacements as Jon Cooper went back to an 11/7 alignment for this elimination game. B.J. Crombeen also stayed in the lineup while Nikita Kucherov and Richard Panik were scratched.
- Following their elimination from postseason contention, some details about injuries to Lightning players will start trickling out. Steven Stamkos reportedly felt "hindered" by his leg, and lacked confidence to drive the net or drive wide. He was still fantastic in this series, and at times looked like the only real threat the Lightning could muster against a stout, structured Montreal neutral zone defense.
- Speaking of which, if I had to pinpoint one thing that undid the Lightning, it was how well Montreal played in neutral ice. They were relentless in attacking the Lightning blue line, stealing outlet passes, and making crispy entry passes to start offensive passes. Conversely, they denied entry into their own zone with rigor, forcing Tampa Bay into an ineffective dump-and-chase strategy that they couldn't execute. Full credit goes to the Habs for the sound three-zone game they played in all four games en route to the sweep.
- Anders Lindback deserves his share of blame for the loss and the sweep, but let's be careful not to scapegoat a player who never got a fair shake in Tampa Bay and likely was never a good fit for Tampa Bay's goaltending system anyways. He finishes the playoffs with 4 appearances, and an .881 save percentage (17th out of 19 goalies in the playoffs) in 214:31.
- As for whether Lindback, a pending RFA is signed, that's a topic to explore this off season. Ben Bishop reportedly had a dislocated elbow sustained at the end of the regular season and would have needed an extended series to appear. He's also still dealing with a lingering wrist problem, and will need a capable back-up that can spell him next season. Is Lindback that guy? He'd come cheap as an RFA, but there might be better options.
- Before we jump to conclusions, though, let's not assume Kristers Gudlevskis or Andrey Vasilevsky is ready for full-time NHL work, even as a back-up. Both will need time to adjust to the pace of the North American game, and tandeming together in Syracuse will probably be the most prudent decision. That means, if Lindback is let go, the Bolts will need to go after an affordable UFA back-up in a less-than-stellar market -- perhaps Al Montoya, Thomas Greiss, or Justin Peters.
- The penalty call that led to the game-winning power play goal is the ultimate 'bad beat', but it's hard to levy accusations of tampering or some sort of refereeing conspiracy. You make your own luck, as they say, and the Lightning spent so much of these four games chasing the puck that the calls that went against them were insurmountable. That said, there's nothing more heartbreaking then losing an elimination game on a ticky-tack penalty call in the final minute, especially when the Lightning had just started to put their game together at 5v5.
- What other players have potentially played their last game in a Lightning sweater? Will Sami Salo be brought back? Is Teddy Purcell trade bait after a no-show in the postseason? What about deadline acquisition Ryan Callahan? After a terrific finish to the regular season alongside Valterri Filppula and Ondrej Palat, Callahan went ice cold in the playoffs. He's not a play-driver or chance-creator, and without Filppula and Palat playing 100%, he wasn't able to generate anything on his own. Is that the type of player you want to keep around, especially at an asking price north of 5.5 million dollars per year on a long-term deal?
- In spite of the late push, the Lightning still finished the game with fewer than 50% of all shot attempts (48.8% Corsi For) and fewer than 50% of all unblocked attempts (44.9% Fenwick For). The Habs, once again, controlled the puck at 5v5, and overall outshot the Lightning 37-23.
- The one bright spot for Tampa Bay was, once again, Victor Hedman, who was outstanding at managing his gap in transition defense and did a great job anchoring an underperforming blue line all season long and into the playoffs. With Hedman on the ice, the Bolts outshot the Habs 11-3. With him on the bench, the Habs outshot the Bolts 33-9. Finding a way to get a more consistent and reliable blue line from top to bottom will be a critical task for GM Steve Yzerman this offseason.
- Ultimately, while the sweep stings, this was already an overachieving team that was never supposed to be able to make the playoffs to begin with. They faced a tremendous amount of adversity and gained invaluable experience in what is, if things continue this way, a small speedbump on the road to permanent post-season relevance for the Lightning.