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Burns: Three things we learned from a third straight loss to Montreal

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t pleased with their play Monday night despite a 3-0 shutout victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

That performance looked downright Herculean compared to Thursday’s result against Montreal.

Tampa Bay, needing only a couple wins over its last six games to quality for the postseason for a third-straight season, lacked energy in a 3-0 loss to the Canadiens. Unlike Monday when goaltender Ben Bishop was able to bail the Bolts out with perhaps his best performance in a Vezina-worthy season, the Lightning had no answer for the Canadiens, who scored midway through the first period on a back-post rebound from David Desharnais, extended the lead to 2-0 when Torrey Mitchell blew past the Bolts’ defense on a drive to goal and added an empty-netter with two minutes and change to go to shut the door on any Tampa Bay comeback.

The Lightning continue their slide against the Canadiens, who have gone 14-21-3 since January 1. The Habs have defeated the Bolts all three times the teams have met this season and will look to sweep the four-game season series in the regular-season finale April 9 at the Bell Centre.

The Lightning will try to regroup Saturday in their final home game of the regular season against the New Jersey Devils. The Bolts magic number remains five; any combination of points earned by the Bolts or points lost by current Eastern Conference ninth seed Detroit reducing the number.

The Lightning dropped two points behind Florida for the top spot in the Atlantic Division following Thursday’s loss combined with the Panthers’ 3-2 win over the Devils?

Are the Lightning experiencing a normal late-season blip on the radar with the light at the end of the regular-season tunnel getting brighter? Or are the last two performances an indication of trouble ahead for the Bolts?

We’ll attempt to address those issues in today’s 3 Things.

1. OUT OF SYNC

Perhaps the loss of defenseman Anton Stralman has taken longer than hoped to recover from.

Maybe the last few days of the regular season has led to a lethargic let’s-get-these-games-over-with-so-we-can-start-the-playoffs mentality.

Whatever the case, the Lightning have looked out of sorts in their last two games.

Post-game comments from the team alluded to as much.

“We just had too many passengers tonight,” Bolts captain Steven Stamkos explained. “We’re at a point in the season where that can’t happen. That’s unacceptable. I don’t care who we’re playing, if it’s the best team in the league or the worst team, this is almost go time with the playoffs here. Just not good enough efforts consistently all-around. We need a lot better than that. It can’t be in spurts. It has to be consistent. That’s something that we’ve been battling with lately.”

Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop said Thursday’s effort was simply not good enough.

“Just a lot of people talking the talking but not many people walking the walking,” Bishop said before adding, “We’ve got five games left. We’ll figure it out.”

The loss of Stralman can’t be downplayed. The Swedish defenseman was arguably one of the top three most indispensable figures on the Lightning. His absence leaves a huge hole at the top of the Bolts’ back line, and the team has struggled to recover. With the pairings in flux, communication between defensemen has suffered and the defensive zone coverage has been severely lacking in the last two games.

But maybe it’s not time to hit the panic button just yet.

Remember, the Lightning had the best regular season in team history last season but dropped four of five games – including getting shut out for the first time all season 4-0 by Detroit and a loss to last-place Toronto -- at the end of March heading into April. That team recovered to win their final three regular-season games, and then we all know how the postseason played out.

The Lightning’s play of late could just be the result of the long, arduous grind of the regular season combined with an understanding of the challenge ahead in the playoffs.

Stamkos, however, isn’t willing to concede that.

“I think that’s a back-pocket excuse,” Stamkos said. “It’s easy to pull out of a hat when you’re not playing well. We’re not thinking that. I don’t think we’re thinking that. Guys should be excited and ramping up and finishing the year strong so you feel good about yourself heading into the playoffs.”

2. CONTINUING RECENT TRENDS

Sure, it’s a bit unsettling the Canadiens have won all three meetings so far this season against the Lightning, especially considering the Habs, currently sixth in the Atlantic Division, have disappointed this year and will miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

But it’s just par for the course for this rivalry in recent times.

During the 2013-14 regular season, the Lightning won three of four games and collected seven of a possible eight points against Montreal before getting swept by the Canadiens in a First Round playoff matchup.

Last season, the Bolts completed the rare five-game season sweep of Montreal, outscoring the Canadiens 21-8 in the process. The Lightning nearly dispatched the Habs in four-straight games in the playoffs too after holding a three-games-to-none lead in the Second Round series. The Bolts eventually won in six.

The trend, for whatever reason, is for one team to dominate whenever the Bolts and Habs meet up.

This year, it just happens to be Montreal’s turn.

“A team comes in here that’s out of the playoffs, they’re just finishing out the year, they’ve got some good players but they’ve got a lot of good players that are out too,” Stamkos said. “So, there’s no excuses. It’s look yourself in the mirror time. If you’re not giving the effort, then you’re letting your teammates down. That’s unacceptable at this time.”

Perhaps Montreal has extra motivation to beat Tampa Bay this season after the way the Lightning dispatched the Canadiens in last year’s playoffs. Nikita Kucherov scored a controversial double overtime game-winner in Game 1 of the Second Round series. The Lightning dismantled Montreal 6-2 in Game 2, the Habs coming totally unglued at the end, Brandon Prust famously tossing his elbow pad at the Lightning bench after getting kicked out of the game.

More dramatics followed in Game 3, Tyler Johnson scoring the game-winner with 1.1 seconds left to completely demoralize the Canadiens.

Montreal prevented the sweep, taking Games 4 and 5 before the Lightning closed out the series in Game 6.

The memories of that playoff series loss, one in with the Canadiens entered as the favorite, have been motivating for Montreal, much like the Lightning were motivated to pay back the Canadiens last season after the Habs swept the Bolts in the 2014 playoffs.

Tampa Bay will get one more chance to knock off the Canadiens before the season closes. The Lightning finish the regular season against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre on April 9. The result likely won’t mean much for the Lightning. A playoff berth, barring a complete collapse, should be wrapped up by then, and Montreal will have nothing to play for but pride.

Then again, the Lightning will have a bit of pride on the line too as they undoubtedly will not want to finish off the regular season getting swept by their Atlantic Division rival.

3. CUTENESS OVERLOAD

At various points this season, and even going back to last season, the Lightning have had a penchant for passing the puck too much.

Cooper has addressed this issue before, talking about how, at times, the Bolts try to pass the puck into the net and look for the perfect play.

That mentality has been absent from Tampa Bay’s game of late, but last night, we saw it creep back in. The Bolts had a number of good opportunities to shoot on goal but passed them up hoping to generate a better chance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, when too much passing leads to lost opportunities, it can be an issue.

“I don’t think it was much what (Montreal) was doing, I think it was more on our part, too many turnovers in the neutral zone, not a willingness to get pucks in deep,” Stamkos said. “When we got pucks in deep, we put pressure on the D, we had some sustained pressure, but if we’re not willing to do that consistently, those cute plays and fancy plays don’t often work in this league and that’s what we tried too much tonight.”

The Bolts have broken out of that habit in the past, however, and Stamkos believes they’ll do so again.

It’s just a matter of getting back to basics.

“I still have 100 percent belief that this group is special and can get it done,” he said. “You know, we can’t just go out there and play. We have said that all along. It has been our Achilles heel all year. When we don’t compete and we don’t stick to the structure and the game plan, you are a very beatable team in this league. When you do all that with the talent we have in this group, it’s special. We have the guys, and I believe in them. We have to start believing in ourselves and playing for each other here.”

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