Lehkonen, Canadiens double up Lightning 4-2
MONTREAL – With the season potentially on the line, Clathe Montreal Canadiens dug deep to put together one of their best efforts of the season against the league’s top team.
The Canadiens were relentless in their 4-2 victory over the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning to remain within reach of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“That was one of our best games tonight,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “We moved the puck well, we were fast, good forecheck, we were buzzing around the net and extremely disciplined. If we play twice more like that, there’s a very good chance we’ll extend our season.
“There’s not a single guy on this roster tonight that was not engaged.”
Montreal and Columbus both have 94 points with two games left to play in the regular season. But the Canadiens currently sit out of the playoffs with the Blue Jackets owning the tiebreaker for the last wild card. Columbus lost 6-2 to the Boston Bruins on Tuesday.
Both teams are one point back of the Carolina Hurricanes, who beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1.
Montreal (43-29-8) fired 45 shots on third-string goalie Edward Pasquale, who did his part to keep Tampa Bay (60-16-4) in the game in just his second career NHL start.
The constant pressure finally paid off in the third period when Artturi Lehkonen’s remarkable display of hand-eye co-ordination broke a 2-2 deadlock. Lehkonen batted the puck out of mid-air, twice, to beat Pasquale with 12:13 left in the game.
Max Domi made it 4-2 three minutes later on a partial break after Lehkonen found the centreman alone at the blue line.
Montreal improved to 6-1-1 in the last eight games while Tampa was playing its third game in four nights.
“Everyone knew we had to play a full 60 minutes,” said Domi, who scored his 28th of the season. “It’s the best team in the league. They’ve had a pretty impressive year. You’re never really safe against that team. That’s how we played. A lot of desperation, a lot of character. Big game by a lot of guys tonight.
“When we do that, we’re a tough team to beat.”
It was a bad start for the Canadiens, who fell behind just 2:28 in the game on an unlucky play. Seconds after Domi turned the puck over in his own zone, Steven Stamkos’s shot from the corner of the ice bounced off Domi’s skate past Carey Price.
The Lightning were 39-3-3 when they score first.
Montreal responded by upping the pressure on Pasquale, who looked shaky between the pipes to start the game.
“We just stayed with it,” said Tomas Tatar, who had an assist. “We were going from the get-go. Even after some unfortunate bounces, we just stayed with it and played the same way.
“We’re just showing our character. It’s coming down to the last two games.”
Nate Thompson’s first in a Canadiens uniform made it a 1-1 game at 12:23 of the first. After Montreal’s dump-in ricocheted off the referee, Paul Byron found Thompson in the slot for the equalizer.
After some clutch saves by Pasquale, the Lightning took a 2-1 lead 4:18 into the second period through Cedric Paquette’s 13th of the year.
Joel Armia brought Montreal level again on a superb individual effort at 7:32 when he split the Tampa defence and fired his own rebound past Pasquale from a tight angle.
Price stopped 22-of-24 shots for his 35th win of the season.
“Clearly they’ve got something to chase and they were desperate,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. “They played hard, they skated, and we couldn’t match that. I don’t know who’s picking the stars but our goalie was outstanding tonight. He kept it close down the stretch.
“It’s unfortunate we weren’t better in front of him.”
Lightning starter Andrei Vasilevskiy was on the bench after playing Monday while backup Louis Domingue is out with a lower-body injury.
Notes: Jesperi Kotkaniemi played on the wing for the first time this season. … Tampa was without injured defencemen Victor Hedman (upper body) and Dan Girardi (lower body). … Rising tennis star Felix Auger-Aliassime was in attendance at the Bell Centre.
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