MONTREAL - After waiting over 16 months, the Canadiens finally got the chance to avenge their 2004 playoff series loss to the Lightning with a resounding 6-1 win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
Despite the Lightning drawing first blood less than five minutes into the game, the Canadiens roared back with six unanswered goals to improve their preseason record to a perfect 2-0.
The night, however, belonged to rookie sensation Guillaume Latendresse, who earned the game's first star after a three-point performance that also included a pair of goals. Latendresse received a thunderous ovation after each of his goals, with some fans even dusting off an old classic by chanting "Guy, Guy, Guy," - originally the rallying cry for Guy Lafleur when he was busy bringing fans from their seats at the Forum.
The 45th overall pick at this year's draft still has his work cut out for him, though, as he tries to become the first 18-year-old to crack the Canadiens lineup since Petr Svoboda managed the feat back in 1984-85.
The storybook night for Latendresse began in the first period, when he followed a wraparound try by linemate Marcel Hossa by swatting the puck off the back of goaltender Sean Burke and into the net to give Montreal a 3-1 lead. He wasn't done, putting his club up 4-1 when he fooled Burke by patiently waiting for him to make the first move before sliding the puck between the veteran's pads. With the fans already in a Latendresse-induced frenzy, the rookie then capped his night with a perfect pass to Radek Bonk to make it 5-1, giving the young phenom a dream debut at the Bell Centre.
Latendresse, who has earned the praise of team management and media alike since rookie camp began in early September, remains unfazed by the magnitude of what he may be well on his way to accomplishing.
"My goal so far has been pretty simple," said Latendresse, who came to the Canadiens in what had appeared at the time as an innocuous draft-day trade with the Rangers. "I just want to make it as hard as possible for the team not to keep me here and I think that's what I did tonight. But again, I know it's only one game and who knows - maybe it was just beginner's luck."
The unbelievably grounded power-forward-in-the-making enjoyed his night of nights with over 20 friends and family on hand at the Bell Centre. His coming-out party also came at the expense of 38-year-old Lightning goalie Burke, a veteran more than twice Latendresse's age.
"There's no question that he's making an impression," admitted Claude Julien about Latendresse. "We still have six preseason games left and if these first two are any indication, this is not going to be an easy decision. That says a lot about our young talent."
Canadiens newcomer Radek Bonk, who was acquired by Montreal in the summer of 2004 but had to wait out the lockout before making his debut this week, chipped in with a goal and three assists of his own. Bonk's line, which also featured Latendresse and Hossa, led the way with a combined 11 points.
Hossa maintained his hot hand with a four-point night, giving him a team-leading five points in two games along with Bonk. Hossa, who scored the game-winner in Sunday's 3-2 win over the Thrashers, again served notice that he, like Latendresse, is eyeing a spot on the Montreal regular-season roster. The younger brother of former Senators All-Star and current Thrashers winger Marian, Hossa has had success at the NHL level, having played on the Canadiens' top line alongside Saku Koivu back in 2002-03 and collecting 10 goals and 19 points in 59 career regular-season games.
Also getting in on the Canadiens' scoring binge were Steve Begin and Tomas Plekanec, the latter of whom also added an assist on Begin's tally.
Yann Danis, the leading candidate to earn the backup spot to Jose Theodore, got the start in goal for Montreal and stopped 15 of 16 shots. Theodore, who entered the game at the 10:04 mark of the second period, stopped all 10 shots he faced yet wasn't seriously tested by a Tampa Bay lineup that was missing the likes of league MVP Martin St.Louis and Brad Richards.
As if fans at the Bell Centre hadn't seen enough for one night, the game, like all preseason contests league-wide this year, was followed by a shootout.
Theodore, who had been beaten only once over the four penalty shots he had faced in his career, stopped two shots yet yielded a goal to Pavel Kubina. He slammed the door on both Vaclav Prospal and on the LIghtning's top star in the game.
"Vincent Lecavalier and I are good buddies, so I can't lie to you, it felt really good to stop him," admitted Theodore with an ear-to-ear grin. "If he would have scored there, I wouldn't have heard the end of it."
Burke, on the other hand, stopped Koivu before being victimized by an absolute laser of a wrist shot from Alex Kovalev that beat the Bolts' goalie up high on his glove side. With the shootout tied at 1 and the drama mounting, it was once again up to Alexander Perezhogin, fresh off having sealed the deal in Sunday's shootout win versus Atlanta, to secure the shootout victory.
"Kovalev took me aside before it was my turn and told me just to relax and shoot and not to deke Burke," said Perezhogin. "So that's exactly what I did. I never decide on my exact move until I feel the puck on my stick. It's been like that since I was a little kid."
If anyone's counting, Perezhogin is a perfect 2-0 in shootouts so far this preseason. With baseball having its designated hitter, might Perezhogin be the NHL's first shootout specialist?
"I wouldn't mind that if it meant me making the team," said a smiling Perezhogin. "I could definitely get used to this."
Next up for the Canadiens is a trip to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs on Thursday before facing Mats Sundin and Co. at the Bell Centre on Saturday night.
NOTES: Julien's lines on Tuesday night consisted of Kovalev-Koivu-Zednik, Latendresse-Bonk-Hossa, Perezhogin-Higgins-Plekanec, and Vandermeer-Begin-Lambert. His blue line pairings were Souray-Dandenault, Rivet-Cote, and Lavallee-Markov... Both teams had a preseason game under their belts, which may explain why the first penalty call of the game came almost seven minutes into the contest as opposed to the 41 seconds it took in Montreal's opener versus Atlanta. A grand total of 16 penalties were called by the refereeing tandem of Bill McCreary and Craig Spada on Tuesday, down from the whopping 32 calls on Sunday night against the Thrashers... Pete Vandermeer didn't hesitate to go toe-to-toe with 6-foot-8, 258-pound Mitch Fritz of the Lightning. After exchanging some serious haymakers, Vandermeer waved his index finger over his head to the crowd as he made his way to the penalty box. The tussle was Vandermeer's second in as many preseason games as he continues to contend for Darren Langdon's old gig as team enforcer... The Canadiens outshot the Lightning by a 36-22 margin, and had 17 shots in the first period alone... The attendance on the night was 18,323, topping Sunday night's announced crowd of 16,893... Missing in action for the second straight game was LW Michael Ryder, who was spotted still limping slightly in the press box. The 2003-04 Calder Trophy runner-up admitted his right ankle remained a little swollen; he continues to receive daily treatments... Mike Komisarek (flu) was also among the game's scratches.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com.