Tampa Bay fell behind by two goals at the midpoint of the first period. They trailed 3-2 at the end of the first and 5-4 going into the third to a Canadiens team that, truthfully, outworked them over the first 40 minutes.
The Lightning weren't even fazed.
Adam Erne scored a pair of third-period goals, including the game-winner with just 1:02 remaining, to cap a thrilling comeback for the Bolts, who improved to 12-0-1 in the month of December and established franchise records for most wins and points (25) in a single month.
At this point, it's almost as if the Lightning are toying with teams, trying to find new ways to keep themselves engaged in the game and different challenges to overcome.
Another was met on Saturday.
Here's how they did it.
Video: Erne on his goal
1. BIG ERN
Adam Erne has bounced in and out of the lineup this season, a reflection not on his play but on the incredible depth the Lightning have at all positions. Erne sat seven-straight games at the beginning of the month.
But he's been in the lineup for six of the last seven games.
And, Saturday, he made his case to stay there.
With the Lightning slowly starting to take over the contest in the third period but still down by a goal, Erne turned in his best shift of the season, taking possession of the puck behind the Montreal goal and maneuvering his way from one side of the net to the other to lose his check, back and forth before dishing out to the point when nothing in front of the net was available. Anton Stralman sent a shot on goal from the right point, and there was Erne, outbattling Victor Mete net front to pounce on the rebound and backhand a shot past Habs goalie Antti Niemi to tie the game 5-5 with a little more than 10 minutes remaining.
"When I'm on the ice with him, I just try to leave him some room and try to take guys so he can do his thing and make plays," Yanni Gourde said. "We had a few good shifts with him when he had the puck and especially on the first goal he scored, he basically had the puck 30 seconds for the whole shift and I was just chasing the puck and trying to help him out and he finally got the rebound and scored."
The combination of Erne, Gourde and Anthony Cirelli produced the game-tying goal for the Lightning, and with the game still hanging in the balance late, Jon Cooper went back to that trio, a move that would pay immediate dividends.
Gourde battled for a puck below the goal line and along the boards, Anthony Cirelli keeping the puck alive when it slipped away from Gourde and passing it back to him. With a numbers advantage in the right circle, Gourde unselfishly passed to Erne, who had the better angle, and Erne quickly snapped a shot from the dot at the near post past the glove of Niemi for the game-winner, his third of the season and fourth of his career.
"He's been amazing, and he's been working so hard on every detail," Gourde said. "You can tell it pays off. He's skating so fast and he's skating so strong. It's really fun to be able to go in there with him and help him out a little."
Added Erne: "It's one of those nights you dream about…I'm just trying to earn my spot in the lineup. Each night is an opportunity to prove to the coaches and the management staff I can be in the lineup each night."
Video: MTL@TBL: Erne goes bar down to put Lightning ahead
2. THIRD PERIOD PUSH
The Lightning were a step behind over the first 40 minutes, the Canadiens beating Tampa Bay to loose pucks, using active sticks to force countless turnovers and frustrating the Lightning into higher-risk passes that had little hope of being completed.
The third period was more what we're used to seeing from the Bolts.
After getting outshot 32-19 over the first two periods, the Lightning owned a 13-6 shot differential in the third. They controlled the puck for much of the period, kept it in the offensive zone and didn't allow Montreal much of anything on the other end. The way the Bolts played in the third, it was only a matter of time before they found a way to move in front of the Canadiens.
"The same Lightning team that played in the third period, down a goal, tie the game and then winning the game, was probably not the same team that played in the first two periods," Cooper said. "That was talked about in the locker room after the game, sometimes you're feeling good about your game, feeling good about a lot of things, the goal scoring, pucks are going in the net for you, and when you're having success with it, the guys keep staying with it. We had to change the way we were playing or who knows what the score was going to be in that game. And in the third period…the biggest thing for me is we didn't give (Montreal) anything in the third. And as that game wore on, the zone time was all in our favor, puck possession was in our favor, chances were in our favor, but it was our compete level 200 feet away from their net that was the difference. And that's not what we were doing in the first two periods."
Cooper's decision to put Erne, Gourde and Cirelli together in the third was the catalyst for the Lightning comeback. That trio relentlessly hounded the puck, played a simpler game and didn't turn the puck over cheaply. They got more ice time in the third period as a result and spearheaded the comeback effort that provided Tampa Bay with its 30th win of the season in just its 39th game.
"As a coach, you're looking for different combinations and things to pull us out of the funk we were in for 40 minutes," Cooper said. "And you could see Adam had a couple good shifts early, he really didn't play a whole ton but he was kind of feeling it. We lost Cirelli for a little bit of the game in different parts so it was just waiting for everybody to get our team back. Those three kids, they were going, and we put them together and it worked."
Video: Stralman on defensive structure
3. BOLTS BIGGEST FLAW
During an interview session with local media prior to Saturday's game, Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois said the one negative he's seen so far from his group this season is the number of goals they've allowed through the first half of the season.
The Lightning are giving up 2.97 goals per game and rank 15th in the NHL for goals allowed currently. BriseBois would like to see the goals allowed number down close to two and his team's ranking for goals against in the top 10 of the league.
The game against Montreal was another example of what has become the Lightning's biggest flaw.
The team scored six goals against Montreal, but the game was in doubt up until the closing seconds. Tampa Bay certainly has the capability to outscore teams this season. But when games tighten up toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs, the Lightning are going to have to prove they can shut other teams down. They have the ability to do so, it's just an attention to detail that will make it happen.
"We've got to grow a little more here in that regard and not expect the track meet game, although we can play it but it's not the ideal formula as we move forward," Cooper said.
The Lightning have given up five goals each of the last two games and three or more goals in five of the last six games. That's not typically a recipe for success.
The Bolts' challenge moving forward is to get better defensively as a group to make an already strong team even more difficult to defeat.
"Just look in the third, we simplify our game, don't spend unnecessary time in our own end, we're winning battles, we get pucks out when we don't have a play," Victor Hedman said. "When you have a good team, it's easy to get caught making the perfect play all the time. You've got to be satisfied sometimes just chipping pucks out and going on the forecheck. I think we're at our best when we play simple in our own end and we don't spend too much time there…I think that's the biggest difference in the third, and that's the way we have to play going forward."