Tampa Bay put together a complete 60-minute effort in Montreal on Tuesday night.
The Lightning couldn’t breathe easy, however, until the 61st minute plus change.
Tyler Johnson was probably trying to pass to Nikita Kucherov on the back post with 1:03 expired in overtime and the Lightning buzzing the Canadiens’ net. Instead, Johnson’s pass deflected off the skate of Montreal defenseman Tom Gilbert and past Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who had been unbeatable to that point, to give the Lightning the lone goal in a 1-0 victory.
Behind a 19-save performance from Ben Bishop and Johnson’s game-winner, Tampa Bay improves to 3-0-0 against Montreal this season and has outscored the Canadiens a combined 12-3.
With 15 games to go in the regular season, the Lightning trail Montreal by a point in the Atlantic and are tied with the New York Islanders for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
There’s a lot to digest from Tuesday’s thriller; three things coming now.
1. CROSSING THE ATLANTIC
No matter where Tampa Bay finishes in the division standings at the end of the regular season, the Lightning have absolutely owned the Atlantic this season.
Through 19 games, the Bolts are 14-3-2 versus the Atlantic. Of the three regulation losses, none have come at home.
Against Montreal and Detroit, the two teams challenging the Lightning for the division championship, the Bolts are a combined 5-0-0.
On Tuesday against the division leading Canadiens, Tampa Bay absorbed Montreal’s best shot in the early stages then proceeded to patiently, systematically beat the Canadiens into submission. The Lightning owned a 13-2 advantage in shots in the third period and 3-0 in overtime.
Montreal goalie Carey Price kept the Canadiens in the game as long as he could, making 35 saves overall and several critical stops in the latter stages.
But, Tyler Johnson’s breakthrough 1:03 into overtime capped a dominating road performance for the Bolts, who pulled within a point of Montreal in the Atlantic.
“Extremely happy with the effort,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said following the victory. “We just stayed with our structure. We didn’t get frustrated. We just treated this as a playoff game, and this is the way they go.”
The Lightning have 10 more games remaining against Atlantic foes in 2014-15. With the way they’ve performed against the division to date, the Bolts have a great chance to stack copious points over the final four-plus weeks of the regular season
2. BOSTON LOOMS
All that being said, Boston remains the one dragon the Lightning have yet to slay, which makes Thursday’s game against the Bruins one of the biggest (if not the biggest) of the season.
In the one previous meeting with Boston this year (January 13), the Lightning were physically manhandled at TD Garden, the Bruins’ brute strength negating the Bolts’ speed in a 4-3 defeat.
Tampa Bay has lost nine straight to Boston and hasn’t beaten the Bruins since the 2011-12 regular season. If the Lightning leap frog Montreal and finish as the Atlantic Division champions, a matchup against Boston in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals would be a likely scenario.
A victory on Thursday against a Boston team that is 5-0-1 over its last six games isn’t an absolute necessity, but it’s extremely important the Lightning put together a good, quality performance to prove they’re capable of hanging with the Bruins in Bean Town and beating them in a best-of-seven series.
Tuesday’s Tampa Bay-Montreal matchup had all the hype as the top two teams in the Atlantic squared off, but Thursday’s game in Boston has the potential to tell us considerably more about the Lightning going forward.
3. THE TRIPLETS WERE AT THEIR BEST
Whether it was Ondrej Palat hitting and hustling to retrieve loose pucks, or Nikita Kucherov using his superior stickhandling to weave through the Canadiens defense, or Tyler Johnson setting up countless scoring chances before sending home the game-winner, the Triplets were absolutely magical on Tuesday against Montreal.
Watching the trio slice and dice their way through the Montreal defense was a thing of beauty for Lightning fans. Montreal supporters, however, are probably waking up in a cold sweat this morning thinking about the damage the group did to their team.
Johnson’s game-winning goal was typical of the type of play the Triplets have produced all season. Johnson got behind the Montreal defense by putting the puck through the legs of Gilbert and racing around him to get to the puck behind the net. Johnson’s initial shot from the right edge was saved by Price but bounced directly back to the pivot. Kucherov did what he always does: goes to the right spot at the right time. Johnson spotted him on the back post, crossed and the puck deflected in the traffic into goal.
“Kuch was battling with a guy, so I was just trying to get it somewhere in there where he could do something with it,” Johnson said. “I think it ended up hitting off a D-man’s skate and going in there. A lucky goal, but we’ll definitely take it.”
The only negative from Tuesday’s game was the injury to Triplets left wing Ondrej Palat, who left with a little more than two minutes to go in the second period with a lower-body injury and didn’t return. Cooper indicated after the game Palat hadn’t broken any bones and should be OK but will be re-evaluated today.