MONTREAL -- Steven Stamkos' march towards 60 goals hit a roadblock Wednesday night at Bell Centre, and the man in charge of the workers who put up that roadblock couldn't have been prouder.
Stamkos remained at 58 goals with two games to play in the season, but Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty scored twice each to lead the Montreal Canadiens to a 5-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"There wasn't one dedicated line (assigned) to that line, so I think everyone was well aware of how they were trying to feed him," Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "I think we paid pretty good attention to him."
Stamkos will play in front of family and friends at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Thursday before finishing the season in Winnipeg against the Jets on Saturday. He has four goals in eight games against those two teams this season, so he'll need to improve on that pace to become the first player to hit the 60-goal mark in the NHL since Alex Ovechkin had 65 in 2007-08.
But for Stamkos to hit the milestone, he and his teammates will also need to drastically improve their play on the road.
The Lightning's record away from the Tampa Bay Times Forum dropped to 12-22-5, a mark better than only Columbus and a big explanation for why the Lightning finds themselves out of the playoffs.
"I can't put more emphasis on it than I did. I can't," coach Guy Boucher said. "The players have to be better. The game plan doesn't change home and away; what changes is how you perform. We haven't been very good on the road this year, but we tied a franchise record with 25 home wins. So we certainly can do well, but we didn't do well on the road."
Alexei Emelin also scored and David Desharnais collected two assists for the Canadiens (30-35-15), who won their first in five games (1-2-2) and just their second in nine games (2-3-4).
The victory also put the Canadiens firmly in 28th spot in the overall standings, two points up on the Edmonton Oilers and two back of the New York Islanders with 80 games played.
But Pacioretty said he and his teammates wanted to show the Canadiens' fans that their place in the standings is more of an aberration than an indication of where the team is headed.
"I think it's important for us to show our fans that we're not that far from being a contending team," he said. "We've got a good, core group of players here. We don't need to shake things up too much to be competitive, so it was fun to do it at home tonight."
Local products Vincent Lecavalier and Bruno Gervais scored for Tampa Bay, while Quebec native Sebastien Caron made 20 saves in goal for the Lightning (37-36-7).
"We didn't play well," Lecavalier said. "We didn't get any shots on goal. It obviously wasn't our best game."
Peter Budaj made his second straight start in goal for the first time this season and made 14 saves for just his fourth win of the season. The win came on the same day the Canadiens announced starting goalie Carey Price would be shut down for the season with a mild concussion.
The Lightning's total of 16 shots on goal was not a season low. In fact, it was the fourth time this season Tampa Bay has hit that mark. The Lightning had a season-low 15 shots on goal in Philadelphia on March 26 -- a game Tampa Bay won 5-3.
"We didn't shoot. With all the opportunities we had we tried the extra pass and the fancy play," Boucher said. "When you try the extra pass and the fancy play, you're going to get nothing. That's what we got tonight."
Cole hit the 34-goal mark and has two games remaining to better the 35 goals scored by Alex Kovalev in 2007-08. Cole, whose previous career high in goals was 30 in 2005-06 with Carolina, would become the Canadiens highest goal scorer since 1995-96 if he manages to reach 36 goals.
"He's a beast out there," Pacioretty said of his and Desharnais' linemate. "He's taught me so much, and he makes our line go. Obviously the three of us have had great chemistry together, but hopefully we can do it for two more and leave this season with confidence."
But the real milestone on everyone's mind Wednesday was much higher than that, and Stamkos had several good opportunities in the first period alone to continue his push for 60 goals.
Just past the midway point, Stamkos came down 1-on-1 on Canadiens rookie defenseman Frederic St-Denis, deftly got around him but was hooked by Louis Leblanc before he could get a decent shot away.
With just over three minutes remaining in the first, Teddy Purcell appeared to have a good shooting lane from the slot, but instead attempted an ambitious pass to Stamkos at the far post that failed to connect. Stamkos would have been staring at an open net had the pass been on target.
Then, with just under 30 seconds left in the first Stamkos came down with Martin St. Louis on a 2-on-1 break. St. Louis fed Stamkos perfectly, but when Stamkos cut in front of Budaj his shot went wide, though he appeared to be tripped on the play.
Emelin opened the scoring for the Canadiens at 2:11 of the first, converting a perfect feed in the slot from Desharnais for the rookie's third of the season.
"That's why we call him Casper, he's like a ghost out there," Pacioretty said of Desharnais. "He always finds a way to get the puck in the zone with control and that's an important thing for our line, especially on the power play."
Lecavalier answered at 7:26 when Budaj – who earned an assist on Emelin's goal – put a pass right on his stick, leaving him with an empty for his 22nd of the season.
"That's it?" Cunneyworth asked after his press conference. "Nobody wanted to talk about Budaj's two assists?"
Cole scored his first at 1:42 of the second on a one-timer from the circle, then scored again on the power play at 14:34 by tipping home a Tomas Plekanec point shot.
After Gervais made it 3-2 at 3:42 of the third, Pacioretty scored his 31st and 32nd goals at 5:58 and 14:57, snapping an 11-game goal drought. The last three games in which Pacioretty has scored have all been two-goal performances.