MONTREAL – In his ninth game as interim coach and with a small crowd of people protesting his job title outside the building prior to the game, Randy Cunneyworth believes he has finally found something that works for the Montreal Canadiens.
It's an unorthodox lineup quirk, but for a second straight game, Cunneyworth played seven defensemen regularly.
And for a second straight game the Canadiens won, this time beating the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 on Saturday night in front of 21,273 satisfied customers at the Bell Centre.
"We've found the formula a little bit," Cunneyworth said. "It pushes the (defense) to perform, and I think they're feeding off of each other very well. We kind of like the formula we have there."
Max Pacioretty and Carey Price each snapped slumps, with one scoring the game-winner and the other making 23 stops to lead the Canadiens (16-18-7) to a rare second straight win.
Michael Blunden and Erik Cole also scored to allow the Canadiens to string together one or more consecutive wins for just the third time this season after a 7-3 victory at home against the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday.
Other than a four-game winning streak from Oct. 26 to Nov. 4 and two straight wins on Dec. 10 and 13, the Canadiens have been unable to sustain their effort for more than one game at a time this season.
Pacioretty breaking a season-long 10-game goal drought to score his 12th of the season played a big part in the win, putting the Canadiens ahead in the second period and giving the young power forward a jolt of confidence he'd been lacking of late.
"I kind of told myself I had to stop thinking and do what made me successful in the past. It's a relief to score, but it's an even bigger relief to help this team win a game and I hope to do it in the future," said Pacioretty, who also added an assist on Cole's insurance goal late in the third. "The difference between scoring a goal and not scoring a goal is that millisecond where you stop the puck and think or you just try to get a quick shot off. That's the difference between being successful and slumping. I found that out tonight and I'm glad I was able to overcome it."
Winning two straight games at home is even more of a rare feat, as the Canadiens had managed that on just two previous occasions and now have an opportunity to win three in a row at home for the first time this season when the St. Louis Blues and former goaltender Jaroslav Halak will be the visitors Tuesday night.
Granted, the Canadiens have managed this "streak" at home against two of the worst road teams in the League, the Lightning (17-20-3) completing a three-game Eastern Canada swing with an 0-3-0 record and stretching their winless streak away from home to five games (0-4-1).
Just four teams in the NHL had fewer than Tampa Bay's six road wins coming into the contest, one of them being Winnipeg.
"You're on the road and it's tough to win. That team wants to win also and they're at home so they get the last change," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "It's obviously extremely difficult."
That last line change meant Cunneyworth was able to put the line of Lars Eller, Travis Moen and Andrei Kostitsyn against Tampa Bay's potent trio of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Steve Downie. After scoring four goals and adding an assist in his last game, Eller helped contribute at the other end by limiting Stamkos to a single shot on goal and making his line a non-factor for much of the night.
"That's a pretty impressive trio coming at you and we obviously have to take their time and space away," Cunneyworth said. "They're the line that does the damage largely, so you have to give those guys credit."
The Lightning got a goal from captain Vincent Lecavalier and had Ryan Malone return from a two-game absence due to an upper-body injury, but although Tampa came out ahead on the shot counter 28-24 scoring chances were rare on Price.
Still, Price allowed a single goal for the first time in 10 starts, his longest such stretch of the season.
"I feel like I've been kind of struggling," Price said. "But I tonight I felt my team gave me an excellent opportunity to kind of put out a simple performance. I didn't have to really make any huge saves, I just had to keep everything routine."
Mathieu Garon got the nod in goal for the Lightning and played well enough to win, but the lack of goal support evened his record at 11-11-2.
"It's frustrating for everybody right now," Garon said. "I felt good, we were close, but we just couldn't get the second goal."
It was Cunneyworth's third win in nine games behind the bench, and it came on a night when 100-200 people held demonstration outside the Bell Centre to protest the hiring of a uniligual coach. The demonstrators handed out Quebec flags to fans entering the building, but very few were waved during the game.
For a second straight game, Cunneyworth began his post-game news conference with a short statement in French – this time mentioning how proud he was of defenseman Alexei Emelin for playing with a full cage a day after taking a puck in the face at practice.
But when asked about the demonstration, Cunneyworth said he didn't lose much sleep over it.
"I just found out about it maybe a day or two ago," Cunneyworth said. "I think that's their prerogative. As far as I'm concerned, I didn't give it much more time than that, just being aware of it. I was focused on the game."
The Lightning took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, coming out ahead in a largely uneventful first period.
Dominic Moore was battling in the corner for the puck when he suddenly flung it towards the net just as Lecavalier came out front from behind the goal line to tip it behind Price for his 15th goal of the season at 3:24.
The Canadiens struck quickly against the Jets in their last game – with two bursts of two and three goals within a minute – and they did it again in the second to take the lead.
"I don't think in the second period we worked that hard, and weren't that smart," Boucher said. "That's a bad mix there in the second period. First period (we were) fine, third period fine, but we got killed in the second period because we weren't hard enough and we weren't smart enough."
The unlikely combination of Hal Gill and Mike Blunden hooked up to tie the game at 5:44, with Gill's point shot being stopped by Blunden in front and his weak backhand getting through Garon for his first of the season.
Just 1:32 later, Pacioretty got in behind the Tampa Bay defense and took a stretch pass from P.K. Subban to go in alone on Garon, snapping a quick shot home to give Montreal the lead at 7:17 of the second.
Montreal looked to shut things down in the third period and did so for the most part, bottling up the neutral zone and limiting Tampa Bay's ability to set up much offensively.
After Marc-Andre Bergeron took a late penalty to hamper Tampa Bay's chance of coming back, Cole scored his team-leading 17th of the season with 16.1 seconds to play in regulation to make it 3-1.
The Canadiens hit their halfway point of the season with 39 points, knowing full well they will need to be much better over the second half in order to secure their fifth straight playoff berth.
Perhaps Cunneyworth's new "formula" will be enough to get them there.