The Lightning have been plagued by an inefficient dump-and-chase game through the neutral zone and forced into long, tiring offensive shifts for the Habs, almost the exact reverse of how the Bolts played the Habs during the regular season.
On Sunday night, those problems didn't go away. But they were dwarfed by a confluence of misfortune that befell the Bolts on top of their own poor play.
With the impressive, playoff atmosphere of the Bell Centre, there were some concerns that a young Lightning team wouldn't handle the pressure well. Head coach Jon Cooper responded by inserting veteran forwards Tom Pyatt and B.J. Crombeen.
Just 11 seconds into the game, P.K. Subban lifted an aerial pass from his own zone through Matt Carle and Victor Hedman, springing Rene Bourque for a breakaway that he buried short side past Anders Lindback on the first shot of the game.
That whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and the Habs capitalized on the momentum generated by a quick strike. Mark Barberio took a double minor for high sticking after crashing into a falling Brian Gionta in front of the Lightning net, handing the Habs a 4-minute power play and a chance to pull away early and put the Bolts six feet under.
The Habs buzzed around the offensive zone on the power play with some good looks towards the net but couldn't convert. Lindback made a terrific save with the penalty expiring to keep the game at a one-goal deficit.
The Habs' power play led to 5v5 momentum, however, as the Bolts were routinely hemmed in their own zone for long stretches in the first, resorting to merely working to get the puck out and over the red line so they could dump and change, then immediately start defending again.
Shots ended 13-8 in the first but with the majority of good scoring chances and zone time heavily in Montreal's favor, with only Anders Lindback keeping the Bolts within striking distance heading into the second period.
Tampa Bay tried to get more physical in the middle frame, but still couldn't do much offensively with the puck outside a chance in the slot early for Ondrej Palat.
The Lightning finally benefited from a gift of a power play after a scrum behind the net put only Danny Briere in the box for two minutes. Palat wasted no time firing a quick shot from the slot through Price to tie the game at 1-1 and give the Lightning some life.
Your standard make-up call ensued, with Andrej Sustr going off for a hook, but the Lightning held their own on the penalty kill -- even generating some shorthanded offense -- and then went on another power play of their own with a chance to take their first lead in the series since the first half of Game 1.
The Lightning finally started to dictate play at even strength and even appeared to take a lead after a scramble in front of Carey Price resulted in Ryan Callahan shoving the puck into the net. But the goal was waived off by the officials for very questionable goaltender interference on Alex Killorn, who was caught in the crease with Price in desperation mode well outside his net. PK Subban then obstructed Killorn, who tried to leave the crease, and Price appeared to initiate contact with Killorn intentionally as the puck went under Price and into the net.
The no-goal call was universally criticized by national media sources, though the letter of the rule book does allow for that call to be made. Even worse, it's non-reviewable if the play is called no-goal on the ice, as it was.
The bad quickly went to worse for Tampa Bay, as Steven Stamkos was pulled down without the puck by Brandon Prust just a few shifts later, exposing the Lightning captain to a knee-to-head hit by Alexei Emelin that had him looking woozy on the ice and kept him out of the rest of the second period.
What followed was a very bad show from the Montreal fans booing an injured Stamkos and mockingly cheering his name as he was helped off the ice and likely into the quiet room.
During 4v4 play shortly after, PK Subban wheeled around the net, lost Ondrej Palat, and fed Brendan Gallagher for a goal to put the Habs back on top, 2-1, which is where the second period ended.
Surprisingly, the third period saw Steven Stamkos back on the bench, raising questions about his health, particularly since the knee to the head looked like it might have caused a concussion. Stamkos looked fine on the ice, but concussions are a tricky injury and if he sustained one it's hard to imagine a situation where the training and medical staffs should feel good about letting him back into the game.
With Tampa Bay finally mounting some sustained offense in Montreal's end, it was Tomas Plekanec with the dagger after a defensive zone breakdown. No one stepped up on him on the right side and he walked in and snapped a backbreaker through Lindback for what seemed like an insurmountable 3-1 lead.
With Montreal now holding a two-goal lead, the fans started serenading the Bolts with oles, and the Habs went into a defensive shell, looking to collapse in front of Price and protect the lead in order to cruise to a 3-0 stranglehold in the series.
But with 8:25 remaining, Matt Carle fired a shot from the blue line that somehow made it through Price, who didn't pick up the puck quickly enough as it went into the net, giving the Bolts some life with a one goal deficit and eight and a half minutes still remaining on the clock.
The Bolts had a couple decent looks towards the net with Montreal still just holding on, and eventually Jon Cooper used his timeout to draw up a play to try and tie the game with under two minutes remaining. The Bolts had a couple more chances to score to tie it, but the Habs did a good job defending 5v6 and held on for the 3-2 victory and the 3-0 series lead, with an opportunity to sweep in Game 4 at home.
- It's important after something like what happened with Stamkos to take a step back before passing judgement on any one person or on any group. The pull-down by Prust was bad, but it was also a typical non-call in the playoffs. Emelin may have had time to pull up off his hit of the vulnerable Stamkos, but it's impossible to say for certain (unlike other, similar incidents) if there was intent in the short time between Emelin lining up the hit and Stamkos falling to the ice.
- Furthermore, while we should absolutely chastise the fans in Montreal for their behavior after the Stamkos injury, that shouldn't take away from many respectful Habs fans or from the strong game the Canadiens have played in all three match-ups so far. It wasn't PK Subban or Tomas Plekanec calling Stamkos' name derisively.
- Make no mistake, though the Lightning showed good resiliency fighting back from deficits and overcoming the adverse situations presented, they were again beaten handily in terms of puck possession and offensive zone time. The Habs took a commanding 58.4% of all unblocked shot attempts in the game, as their strong play in the neutral zone again frustrated the Lightning from generating offense with carry-ins and relegated the Bolts to playing an inefficient and tiring dump-and-chase game.
- Ondrej Palat made his return from injury and scored Tampa Bay's first goal on the power play. He skated 19:08 in total including his regular shifts on the penalty kill and power play units and looked no worse for wear, making smart plays with the puck on his stick and, as usual, being relentless on the backcheck and in the defensive zone.
- Tom Pyatt (7:54 TOI, one hit) and BJ Crombeen (8:48 TOI, two hits, one blocked shot) didn't play on either special teams unit and were non-factors at even strength. Veteran presence on the ice notwithstanding, it's hard to see how they helped the Bolts in this game where the dynamic puck skills of Nikita Kucherov or Richard Panik might have helped more.
- Alex Killorn took exactly one faceoff tonight for the Bolts. It came with seconds left and Anders Lindback on the bench for an extra attacker. He lost the draw to Tomas Plekanec and the game ended without a last second chance for the Bolts.