The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning, two teams who could very well end up facing off in the first round of the playoffs, clashed last night in Tampa.
Montreal came out with the decision on two goals by Max Pacioretty and a 43-save performance by Carey Price.
The game was an exciting one as both teams can skate like the wind and, as such, the match had a playoff-like pace to it. The high-tempo, high-intensity match was to be expected considering the rivalry between these two teams, and the fact that prior to last night only three points separated them in the standings.
Montreal once again got themselves into penalty trouble giving Tampa six power plays including an early third period 5-on-3. Fortunately, Price and the Habs' penalty kill shone allowing only one Tampa man-advantage goal.
The game was pretty even until Hal Gill opened the scoring—his second goal in two games—with a blast from the point that got past a screened Dwayne Roloson. David Desharnais kept the party going only 3:14 later on the power play, when he buried an Andrei Kostitsyn pass from the high slot.
Dominic Moore cut the lead in half on an early second-period PP before Pacioretty restored the two-goal margin off a Tomas Plekanec rebound. Pacioretty would get another early in the third to push the Habs' lead to three before Vincent Lecavalier made things interesting by scoring his 16th of the season with about six minutes to play in the game.
However with Roloson on the bench for the extra attacker, Montreal MVP Carey Price led the charge, shutting down the high-octane Lightning offense to secure the victory.
Final score: Habs 4 - Lightning 2
Habs scorers: Hal Gill (2), David Desharnais (8), Max Pacioretty (13, 14)
Lightning scorers: Dominic Moore (12), Vincent Lecavalier (16)
Three-stars: 1. Max Pacioretty, 2. Carey Price, 3. Scott Gomez
1. Price is gearing up for the playoffs.
Despite getting the second star of the game, Carey Price was once again the main reason for the Habs' win.
Earning his league leading 31st win of the season—tied with Detroit's Jimmy Howard—Price was in prime form, calmly turning aside shot after shot, swallowing up rebounds or purposefully directing them into the corners and continuing to show his All-Star form.
Price finished the night with 43 saves and has stopped 116 shots over the Habs three-game Southwest Division road trip—Atlanta, Florida and Tampa.
It's still amazing to see how far Price has come and how quickly he has done it. His rise to the top this season is the main reason for the Habs' success, especially considering the absence of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges for the season.
2. Gill is rounding into playoff form.
As an integral piece of the Habs' leadership puzzle, Gill led the charge during the latter half of last season and the playoffs. He is the type of player who's game gets better as the season goes on and right now, with less than 20 games to play, this is his time to shine.
So while Gill has been a solid player all season long and has been a major catalyst in getting P.K. Subban's game on track, you can see that he is starting to elevate.
Last night, Gill continued to make excellent defensive plays, stripping the puck from the Lightning which set up the play leading to Pacioretty's second of the night.
In addition to Gill's defensive prowess and increased intensity on the ice, he has also, magically, scored two goals in his last two games. That might not sound so incredible until you consider that he only has 35 career goals and prior to the goal against the Panthers, had gone 100 games without scoring.
I guess he likes the sunshine of Florida!
3. AK46's point streak continues...
With a beautiful assist on David Desharnais' eighth goal of the season, Kostitsyn now has at least one point in six straight games—eight total points (3G, 5A) and a plus-2 rating.
On the Desharnais goal, Kostitsyn battled behind the net on the power play, using his physicality to dig the puck out and fire a pass out front to DD who went forehand to backhand to put it past a sprawling Roloson.
In addition to his power play prowess, the combination of AK46 with Lars Eller and Travis Moen continues to pay dividends for the Habs, with all three players bringing a certain level of size and grit to the table. With Moen digging the pucks out of the corners, Eller setting up the play and Kostitsyn finishing, the Canadiens look they have found an excellent third line.
Hopefully for Montreal they can keep it up, because this line is showing that they can provide some needed secondary scoring with size, something in short supply for the Habs.
4. Scott Gomez played a great game, but will it last?
Anyone who reads my articles on a regular basis knows that I am been one of the biggest critics of Gomez and his ineffective play this season. And for the most part, I think I've been pretty fair in assessing his horrible performances.
They say that as an offensive player, when things are not working out offensively you should make sure to take care of things defensively. Well, as Gomez's minus-15 rating attests, he hasn't been excelling in that department either this season.
All of that aside, I've got to give credit where credit is due: Scott Gomez played a hell of a game last night.
He was active in all three zones, made several excellent defensive plays and, almost more importantly, was getting things done on the offensive side of the puck.
Playing with one of the hottest Habs players in Pacioretty, Gomez set up several great plays with him and Brian Gionta, finishing the night with one assist, two shots on goal and a plus-one rating.
He was lacking in the faceoff circle, however, where he went 6-for 16 for an ugly 37.5 percent efficiency.
That being said, he was a real factor in the victory for the first time in recent memory and while it's only one game, Gomez played exactly the way he has to last night. If he can find some consistency and keep that level of play up, it will go a long way towards helping the Habs have playoff success.
Now if only the Habs could figure out what to do with the first line!
5. Pacioretty continues to roll
What can you say about Max Pacioretty, a rookie who seems to get better and more confident with every game he plays?
Scoring his 13th and 14th goals of the season last night, Pacioretty has five points (4G, 1A) and a plus-three rating over his last five games.
His 14 goals place him in fifth overall on the Habs, scoring at a 0.388 goal per game pace. In case you’re wondering, that would put him on pace for 31.88 goals over an 82 game season. In addition, if he had played all 65 games this season, Pacioretty would be leading the Habs in goals with 25.
As if that wasn't enough, Pacioretty's second-period power-play marker was his team- leading seventh of the season. And he has done all of this while largely playing with the Habs least effective center in Gomez.
I still maintain that while Pacioretty is playing well now, he is on course for a major playoffs breakout and could easily be one of the Habs most important players this spring.
Whatever happens in the playoffs, right now Pacioretty is certainly one of the Habs best players not named Carey Price.
Standings and Next Game
After going through a rough stretch through the middle of February, the Habs seem to have turned the corner, winning four in a row and five of their last six.
Montreal now has 79 points in the standings with a 36-23-7 record, sixth overall in the East. In addition, their road record is finally starting to look respectable at 16-15-1.
Montreal is now only one point behind the Capitals (80 points) for fifth overall, although the Caps have one game in hand. After the Caps it is the Pittsburgh Penguins with 84 points in the standings, the Lightning with 81 points—in third overall due to their first place standing in the Southwest Division—and the Bruins with 84 points.
Pittsburgh has played one more game than Montreal while the Lightning and Boston Bruins each hold one game in hand.
The Habs are starting to put a nice buffer between them and the teams behind them in the standings, as they hold a seven-point lead over the seventh place New York Rangers (72 points) who have played one more game than Montreal.
After the Rangers, things get pretty tight with the Carolina Hurricanes at 71 points, the Buffalo Sabres at 70 points with two games in hand and the Toronto Maple Leafs with 67 points.
Montreal now travels home for a much anticipated match against the Bruins on Tuesday night before heading back out on the road against the St. Louis Blues and the Penguins, on Thursday and Saturday.