Despite a subpar performance, Lightning continue ownership of Canadiens
TAMPA, Fla. -- For the eighth time this season, the Montreal Canadiens trudged back to their dressing room after the Tampa Bay Lightning had burned them. For the eighth time this season, goaltender Carey Price, a Superman against the rest of the NHL, looked human when forced to stare into his kryptonite.
For the eighth time this season, the Lightning found a reason to embrace after the final horn, this occasion Wednesday at Amalie Arena made possible because of center Tyler Johnson's game-winning, buzzer-beater goal after a fine feed from defenseman Victor Hedman. For the eighth time this season, Tampa Bay served as the playground bully to Montreal's goofy geek, with this latest pounding the most painful of all.
The Lightning were bleh for most of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. They were beautiful for the final 1.1 seconds.
The finish counts above all else, and with this one, an anti-Murphy's Law has become the rule for Tampa Bay with its 8-0 record against Montreal this season: Anything that can go right against the Canadiens, will go right, sometimes with fireworks involved.
"We've played some big games against Montreal," said Johnson, after his team's 2-1 victory. "I think we should have played better today. But ... bounces, breaks have been going on our side. So we've just got to keep grinding as long as you can."
As Johnson stood in his dressing room, he wore a black T-shirt with the message, "JUST WIN BABY!" written in large white letters. With apologies to Al Davis, Tampa Bay has raided Montreal so often recently that theft like this stands as no surprise anymore.
Of course, the Lightning found a way to win, despite looking lifeless for most of the second and third periods. Of course, the Lightning found a way to build a 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven series, with a chance to clinch their first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals since 2011 before them Thursday night within the comforts of home. Of course, the Lightning found a way to break the Habs' hearts once more, despite being outshot 31-19 and being outclassed in almost every way but the final score.
Just win, baby.
No beauty required.
"I think that was the perfect, proverbial, 'Sometimes it's not how, it's how many," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Tampa Bay's "how many" never would have been larger than Montreal's total without goaltender Ben Bishop. Johnson received most of the postgame praise, but Bishop's 30 saves can't be overlooked. He served up this performance despite acting as a pinball between the pipes, with body armor practically required to protect himself against the Canadiens' physicality near the net.
Tampa Bay, with Bishop's help, robbed Montreal here. The Lightning know it. The Canadiens know it. Only guzzlers of the bluest Kool-Aid would say Tampa Bay skated as the better team most of Wednesday.
Among many within the Lightning's dressing room, there was a collective "whew!" after the puck off Johnson's stick trickled past Price. The Canadiens held momentum throughout most of the third period, especially after Brendan Gallagher's goal with 9:57 left tied the score at one. Tampa Bay should have felt ecstatic to avoid overtime.
Just win, baby.
The Lightning stuck the landing.
"I think most games, we play well," Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman said. "I don't think we did tonight. We definitely got lucky tonight. They gave us our best shot. They very much deserved to tie that game up. We got lucky at the end."
True, but luck smiles upon worthy recipients of its glow. For a variety of reasons, Tampa Bay has flat-out owned Montreal this season. The Canadiens' collective mind has to be scrambled with their season on the brink. They were presented chances to win Games 1 and 3, and they whiffed both times.
"Obviously, we're excited about the win, but we're not very proud of the way we played," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. "They were a desperate hockey team. Obviously, they had way more chances than we did today. We knew their backs were against the wall, and they played like it."
Those are fine comments for an underwhelming victory over the New Jersey Devils in the regular season. Those are fine comments when team development, not bottom-line results, serves as the immediate concern. But the Lightning should treat victories in the Stanley Cup Playoffs like bars of gold and snatch them however they arrive.
This outcome was another example of Tampa Bay's mastery of Montreal. This outcome was another example of how much psychology can play a part in a merciless marathon. This outcome was another example of chance meeting circumstance to produce a memory.
Eight reasons to believe the trend will continue.