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Burns: Three things from the battle for first place in Montreal

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

How things can change in the blink of an eye.

Remember mid-December when the Tampa Bay Lightning were limping, having lost four of five games and six of eight, a sizzling start to the season long forgotten?

Now, the Bolts are playing as well as they have at any point this season.

The Lightning capped a four-game road trip with an impressive 4-2 victory in Montreal. Along the way, the Bolts picked up key divisional wins against Buffalo, Ottawa and, of course, the Canadiens.

Tampa Bay has won six of its last seven.

Entering Wednesday, the Lightning are the best team in the Eastern Conference, their 56 points placing them two points ahead of Montreal and three in front of Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders in the race for the No. 1 seed.

How did the Bolts get there? Let’s recap.

1. The 4-2 win in Montreal was the Bolts’ best win to date

There are other contenders for sure:

- The Lightning’s 7-1 romp over the same Montreal team in game three of the regular season (Oct. 13).

- Blitzing the Rangers 5-1 in the return of Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle to Madison Square Garden (Nov. 17).

- The victory over Metropolitan Division-leading Pittsburgh before the Christmas break (Dec. 23).

But, when considering how well Montreal had been playing entering Tuesday’s game, winning six straight, combined with the fact the Canadiens were certainly out for revenge after getting shellacked by the Bolts earlier in the season, the victory in Montreal trumps any other win the Lightning have earned so far in 2014-15.

The second meeting between the two teams was billed as the showdown for first place in the East, both teams sitting at 54 points atop the conference standings.

In a pivotal game, at the end of a long road trip, the Lightning responded in fine fashion.

Goaltender Ben Bishop was his typical solid self. The triplets continued to make their case as the NHL’s top line, producing two of the Bolts’ four goals. And an injury-riddled defense stepped up in the absence of Radko Gudas to limit the amount of Grade-A scoring chances for Montreal.

The result? A thoroughly satisfying 4-2 win that has the Lightning positioned perfectly for the second half playoff push.

2. So far so good for a revamped blue line

When news broke that hard-nosed defenseman Radko Gudas would be lost for the remainder of the regular season after having surgery Monday on his knee, concerns about the Lightning defensive core surfaced.

Would the Lightning have enough healthy blue liners to stay atop the Eastern Conference and make a deep postseason run? How would some of the younger defensemen handle being thrust into a more prominent role?

“It’s going to be tough not to have (Gudas) here, but we’ve gone through injuries before and we’ll have to pick up the slack,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said following the victory in Montreal.

If Tuesday is any indication, Tampa Bay should be just fine.

Victor Hedman has started to return to the form he displayed early in the season before fracturing his finger. Anton Stralman continues to be the Bolts’ steadiest player. Jason Garrison has proven to be a key offseason acquisition and defensive leader, and Matt Carle has become an offensive weapon of late with points in five of the Bolts’ last seven games.

But, in particular, the play of Andrej Sustr, Mark Barberio and Nikita Nesterov deserves praise.

Sustr has stepped up his game in recent weeks and seems a much more confident defenseman as he approaches his 100th game in the NHL. His ability to put pucks on net from the point has been a welcome addition to the attack.

Barberio has quietly bided his time. A regular healthy scratch early in the season, the three-year pro has been getting more playing time of late and has responded with a solid outing each time.

And Nesterov has stepped right into the Bolts’ lineup since being recalled from Syracuse a week ago without any noticeable drop off to the team’s defensive performance.

The Lightning could still make a trade before the deadline to bolster their blue line, but, right now, a move doesn’t appear to be necessary.

3. How about that new power-play unit?

Tampa Bay appears to have moved past its recent power-play funk thanks to, who else, the triplets.

The Lightning scored two PP goals against Montreal using a new combination of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Stralman on its top power-play unit.

On the Bolts’ go-ahead goal, Kucherov showed off what is quickly becoming his patented move, faking a shot from the left wing to disguise a cross-ice pass to Johnson on the right, and Johnson, for his part, converting the opportunity with skill and precision.

The Lightning capped a four-goal second period with their second power-play goal, Stralman faking a shot center-point and dishing to Kucherov on the right wing, and the Russian blasting a shot from a sharp angle while Johnson and Palat combined to shove the loose rebound underneath Montreal goalie Carey Price.

Tampa Bay has scored five power-play goals in its last five games. With this new lineup in place, we’re guessing more will follow.

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