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Ultimate fighters

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

TAMPA – If the Tampa Bay Lightning thought they’d have an easy time sending the Canadiens packing on Thursday night, they were sorely mistaken.

Michel Therrien’s troops strung together their best effort of the postseason in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Semi-Final series, torching the Lightning 6-2 at Amalie Arena. The Canadiens avoided elimination with the victory, and now trail the series three games to one with Game 5 set for Saturday night at the Bell Centre.

It was the first time all season that the Canadiens had managed to best their Atlantic Division rivals, who were riding an eight-game winning streak against the CH dating back to the start of the 2014-15 campaign.

“That’s the type of character that we have. That’s what got us to this point. We have a lot of character guys, a lot of guys who love big games and love to step up to big opportunities. That was one thing no one ever doubted. When you look around the room, you trust that your teammates are going to do the job. We did that in Game 4,” offered Brendan Gallagher, who scored his third goal of the playoffs in Thursday night’s win. “We believe in each other. We believe in the guys we have in this locker room. We enjoy coming to the rink every day. We just want to make it last. Every opportunity we get to go play a game, we’re just trying to earn 60 more minutes right now.”

And, they certainly earned another shot at the Lightning in their own barn, outplaying Jon Cooper’s contingent from the start. Gallagher was one of six different goal scorers in Game 4, as the Canadiens got contributions up and down the lineup. When all was said and done, 13 players factored in on the scoresheet as the Canadiens chased Lightning starter Ben Bishop just over five minutes into the second period after jumping out to a 3-0 lead.

“All series we’ve been throwing pucks at him. He’s been standing tall and making some saves. To get a few by him, especially early on, was big,” mentioned Gallagher, referencing the Canadiens’ offensive outburst that led to Bishop being replaced by backup netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, who went on to surrender three goals on 26 shots the rest of the way. “I think we all believed that we’d score goals eventually. It could be different next game. We’re just prepared for anything at this point. Every time we’re on the ice, we’re just playing for our lives now. We can’t afford to take any nights off.”

That really is the reality of the situation for the Canadiens right now. Thursday’s victory is just one step in the right direction, but plenty of work remains. The Habs are well aware that the Lightning are going to recharge and refocus for the next installment of the series in Montreal. They aren’t expecting anything less from a team that had their number since last October.

“We got a break and ran with it, but it’s only one game. We’ll have to find a way to come out the same way next game and play with the same desperation. We know that they will come out and play their best. We’ll let them feel a little bit of heat. We’re going to play desperate as well. We have to keep rolling off that and play the same way,” stressed Max Pacioretty, who scored his team-leading fourth goal of the playoffs on Thursday night, in addition to picking up a pair of assists. “We expect Bishop to come out and play his best game of the year next game. That’s the approach we have to have. We really just have to worry about ourselves.”

After what transpired in the dying seconds of Game 3, the Canadiens’ bench boss wasn’t at all surprised to see his players respond in a way befitting a team that doesn’t shy away from tackling adversity head on.

“I was expecting a good game again from our club. We didn’t change anything, honestly. We played the same way we did in Game 1. We did the same thing we did in Game 2. We stuck to the game plan and I’m really proud of our players,” praised Therrien, whose club outshot the Lightning by a 40-24 margin, including 16-6 in the third period alone. “They finally got rewarded for their hard work.”

Now, they’ll have a chance to extend the series even further, with an entire building cheering them on the whole way through.

“We love playing at home. We love playing in front of our fans. That’s our favourite place to play,” mentioned Brandon Prust, who capped the scoring for the Canadiens with his first goal of the playoffs on Thursday night. “We’re excited to go back there, and we’ll do everything we can to come back to Tampa for Game 6.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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