<
>

Canadiens just can't find a way to beat Lightning

TAMPA, Fla. -- When a team has beaten the other six times in 58 days, logic goes out the window.

Time to bring out the voodoo dolls.

The Tampa Bay Lightning played a mediocre hockey game Wednesday night capped by a brilliant play at the buzzer, leaving the Montreal Canadiens stunned and in disbelief.

Tyler Johnson’s goal with 1.1 seconds to go in the third period was the dagger moment of a series that will end, if not Thursday evening in Game 4, then certainly sometime in the near future.

"Obviously we’re excited about the win, but we’re not very proud of the way we played," Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. "They were a desperate hockey team, had more chances than we did today, they knew their backs were against the wall, they played like it, and we didn’t respond that great."

But the Lightning found a way to win in the end, which is what good teams do in championship seasons, because they can’t all be things of beauty.

This one was far from pretty.

"We know we have to be better tomorrow," said Johnson, the Game 3 hero who collected his eighth goal of the postseason. "We got the win, that’s great, but we definitely need more.

"I don’t think we were composed enough, I don’t think we played our system enough, but they did play a great game. We’ve just got to match that intensity and match that desperation."

Make it eight wins in a row this season for the Bolts over the Habs (six of them since March 10), serving revenge on the coldest of dishes after last spring, when Montreal beat Tampa Bay in four games in the first round of the playoffs.

For the Canadiens, it proved more than ever that seemingly no matter what they try, they just can’t find a way to beat this Lightning team.

The Habs outshot, outchanced and outworked the Bolts -- oh, and hit three goalposts -- and thoroughly deserved the win on this night, but the 2-1 loss at the buzzer left them dazed and confused, their season now hanging by the slimmest of margins.

"We played a hell of a game, had a lot of chances, put so many pucks at the net, hit some posts again. It's a bad way to lose," Canadiens veteran center Tomas Plekanec said.

"It never happened to us before, such an unfortunate goal to be scored last second."

On the winner, Victor Hedman skated around a sprawled Andrei Markov and fed Johnson with a perfect pass, the Lightning center getting off his shot just before P.K. Subban got there to check him.

"By the time I turned around Johnson was already standing there backdoor," Subban said. "I don't know. It just happened really quickly. It's a tough play. It seemed like they had seven guys on the ice, to be honest with you. Just looking around there were guys everywhere. But that's the playoffs. It comes down to one bounce and all you need is one second to win a hockey game."

Johnson didn’t even know the clock was about to hit zero.

"I literally had no idea it was that close," Johnson said. "I knew when I jumped on the ice this would probably be the last shift of the period, but I didn’t realize when I was standing in front it was that close. It’s pretty cool that it, I think it was 1.1 [seconds] or something."

It was Joel Ward who turned the same trick back in Game 1 of the Washington Capitals-New York Rangers series last Thursday. Imagine the odds of it happening twice in the span of six days.

Stamkos, for one, had never been part of a game in his life where it’s happened -- until Wednesday.

"No, and if I hadn’t been watching Washington-New York the other day I probably wouldn’t have ever seen anything like that, either," said Stamkos, whose beauty of a pass set up Alex Killorn's first-period goal. "But that’s two now in the playoffs. That’s why you play to the end, that’s the saying for a reason. But again, Bish was huge for us tonight. He allowed us to hang around."

Indeed, Ben Bishop is having himself quite a series, stopping 100 of 104 shots launched at him so far. Not bad for a guy who entered the postseason with zero playoff experience. He was the wild card of a Lightning team that has Stanley Cup potential, with observers wondering how he’d fare in his first playoffs.

He was huge late in the series versus the Detroit Red Wings in the opening round -- the No. 1 reason they won Game 7 -- and has been terrific again in the second round.

It’s not always pretty as he swims around on the ice at times, but the big-bodied netminder has been a difference-maker.

"We were confident in him the whole time," Stamkos said of Bishop. "I know there were some questions from the media and from other people about this being his first playoff. But he’s such a competitive guy. He wants to play against the best, he wants to beat the best. When you have that attitude it’s almost contagious around the room."

The other goalie in the series, the one that’s nominated for both the Hart and Vezina trophies this season, was very good in a bounce-back performance Wednesday night.

But Carey Price can’t score goals. He literally can’t do it all.

Brendan Gallagher played a whale of a game, but again the Habs find themselves short on the score sheet. They’ve scored only 16 goals in nine playoff games, an average of 1.78 per night.

No matter how great Price is, that’s asking him to win 1-0 or 2-1 every night. No margin for error. Not good enough.

"We're just finding ways to lose hockey games instead of the other way around," Gallagher said. "That's the frustrating part because that's what we've been so good at. Since I've been here, we've always found ways to win hockey games."

The cruelest part of all for the Canadiens is they’ll be facing a Lightning team Thursday night that’s going to be intent on putting forth a much better effort. In the department of having your cake and eating it, the Bolts were able to get the result they wanted while also learning a lesson that the same kind of effort likely wouldn’t cut it again.

Of course, when it comes to the Lightning and Canadiens this season, maybe it just doesn’t matter what Tampa Bay throws at Montreal in Thursday's Game 4. The result seems preordained.