TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning are hoping to have rookie forward Ondrej Palat back in the lineup when they play the Montreal Canadiens in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference First Round series on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS, SUN).
The Canadiens lead the best-of-7 series 2-0 with the scene shifting back to Montreal.
“I felt good today, I had a good practice,” Palat said. “It’s going to be a game-time decision tomorrow.”
Palat left Game 1 on Wednesday with an upper-body injury after playing one shift to start the third period of the 5-4 overtime loss, and did not play in the 4-1 loss in Game 2 on Friday.
Tampa Bay’s leading scorer in the regular season with 59 points in 81 games, Palat led the Lightning with a plus-32 rating. He plays on the penalty kill, on the power play and regularly faces the opposition’s top forwards.
“He’s one of our top players,” Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said Saturday. “Rookie or five-year veteran, it doesn’t matter, this kid is a great player. He’s a gamer. He’s one of those players you look at and say, ‘Wow, we can win with this guy. We can win the Cup with this guy.’ He’s a valuable addition.”
Valuable or not, Palat alone will not solve what has the Lightning facing an 0-2 hole in the series heading to one of the loudest buildings in the NHL for Game 3.
Tampa Bay has been unable to create any semblance of a consistent presence in the Montreal zone in nearly seven periods, stymied by Canadiens forwards who have pressured the Lightning defense and come back hard defensively to disrupt the entries into the offensive zone.
The Lightning have appeared disorganized at times, indifferent at others, and frustrated in general.
“What’s disappointing is not only the outcome of the games, but it’s how we’ve played the game. We know we’re a much better team than that,” Bowness said. “The players addressed it after the game amongst themselves.
“Regardless of the outcome of the game, you’ve got to play the game the right way. You’ve got to play the game with a certain amount of intensity that’s going to give you the opportunity to win the game. I think that’s where we’re disappointed in ourselves. We haven’t thrown our A game at them yet.”
The Lightning players held a closed-door meeting after the game Friday and hashed out some of the inconsistencies, a move commended by coach Jon Cooper as a proactive admission of fault.
“When you've got a team that cares, they take it upon themselves,” Cooper said Friday. “They understand the magnitude of what's gone on … they know they've got more in them.”
Paquette said the meeting was a frank discussion emphasizing the possibility of coming back in the series, but how that will be impossible if the Lightning’s play doesn’t improve dramatically.
“The leaders took charge of the team,” Paquette said Saturday. “They just closed the doors and talked about what wasn’t going well and what we needed to do. It’s good not to wait for the coach to tell us what we need to do all the time.”
With the series shifting to Montreal, Cooper tiptoed around the notion the pressure is more on the Canadiens than the Lightning. It seemed almost as though Cooper wanted to say it but at the last second backed out.
“They’ve got to go home and deliver,” Cooper said.
One player on the Lightning roster who may know that better than anyone is Tom Pyatt, who spent two years with the Canadiens from 2009-11 and played 25 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in that time. He played in 18 of the 19 Canadiens games in the 2010 playoffs when they went to the Eastern Conference Final, Montreal’s longest playoff run since winning the Stanley Cup in 1993, and he played in all seven games of a first-round playoff loss to the Boston Bruins in 2011.
Pyatt remembers how it felt to be a Canadiens player in the middle of a playoff run in Montreal, the people waiting for them at the airport, the adulation on the streets, the feeling hockey is on the minds of anyone and everyone in the city.
“It made you feel like a rock star,” Pyatt said.
Pyatt’s last playoff series with Montreal was one when the Canadiens took a 2-0 lead on the road and went back home with control of the series, only to lose four of the next five games, including an overtime loss in Game 7 that catapulted the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup.
So if there is any doubt in the Lightning room they can come back from their deficit, Pyatt is living proof it's possible.
Pyatt has not been in the Lightning lineup the first two games, so he said he probably won’t talk too much to his teammates about that experience.
“There are other guys on the team who have had similar experiences,” he said.
Actually, there aren’t that many. Five players on the Lightning’s active roster have played more than the 25 playoff games Pyatt has played: Eric Brewer, Ryan Callahan, Matthew Carle, Valtteri Filppula and Sami Salo.
If it doesn’t come from Pyatt, some guidance will need to come from the Lightning’s veteran core as they walk into what will be a daunting environment in Montreal with their season potentially on the line Sunday. For the first time in this series, the Lightning will need to play like they care for 60 minutes or more.
“It’s simple, we didn’t have any energy,” Paquette said. “We, I don’t know, we had no joy playing. Our bench was dead. We didn’t have any intensity.
“For us, that’s what’s important; if we have no intensity and we’re always flat-footed we won’t have success. That’s what happened the first two games.”
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