The Lightning have now won a season-high five consecutive games. But the path to this victory was much different than in the previous four.
For most of the night, it felt as though the Lightning were in choppy waters and facing a headwind. They ceded much of the possession time to the Canadiens (especially in the second and third periods), were outshot, 39-23, and, in terms of shot attempts, were on the wrong end of a 70-40 final tally. But thanks to two first period goals, a strong performance from Andrei Vasilevskiy, and a committed defensive performance in front of him, the Lightning navigated their way to the finish line.
Before the game, Lightning players and coaches stressed the need for a good start. This was in response to some of their recent first periods, including last Saturday's against Montreal). They got a strong one tonight, dominating the opening shift and scoring on their first shot. Anthony Cirelli tipped an Erik Cernak shot over Carey Price's shoulder at the 42-second mark. The Lightning followed up with another excellent shift before the Canadiens started pushing back.
As a whole, the first period was evenly-played. Both teams used their speed to pressure the opposition into d-zone turnovers. One of those came from Price and yielded a Brayden Point steal and quick pass to Nikita Kucherov, who scored into an open net at 8:28. That goal re-established the lead for the Lightning after Jeff Petry had tied the game a couple of minutes earlier. Shortly after Kucherov's tally, the Canadiens also forced a turnover behind the Lightning's net and Max Domi had a glorious chance in front. But Vasilevskiy recovered to make a sprawling save.
It was in the second period that the Canadiens began decisively tilting the ice. The Lightning struggled with turnovers (more so than in the first) and also committed several icing infractions. These problems led to extended d-zone shifts. That's never ideal, but it's especially tough in the second period, when the player bench is a greater distance from the defensive zone than in the first or third. So the Lightning consistently were dealing with tired players getting stuck out on the ice. But those skaters battled through those shifts and did their best to limit the number of Montreal's Grade-A chances. The period was filled with speed bumps, but the Lightning maintained the 2-1 lead after 40 minutes.
In the third, the Lightning did a better job of clearing pucks out of their own end and avoided icing infractions. Still, the Habs pressed the attack, so the majority of the action in third took place in the Tampa Bay end. But the Lightning continued to defend hard in front of Vasilevskiy, blocking several potentially dangerous Montreal attempts and also producing a key penalty kill.
During the third periods in each of the last four games of the winning streak, the Lightning have found themselves with a slim lead. They've closed out all four, not allowing the opposition to get back to a tie. In the other three third periods, they've done
it primarily with a strong puck possession game. Tonight, they had to grind it out in their own end. But they did it successfully. They finished the game with 21 blocked shots. Vasilevskiy recorded 38 saves and provided his club with several key stops along the way.
There are going to be nights when a desperate opponent plays a hard, spirited game and the Lightning have to get through it by "D-ing up" in their own end. That's the formula they used tonight to earn another important two points in the standings.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game:
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy - Lightning. 38 saves.
2. Nick Suzuki - Canadiens.
3. Max Domi - Canadiens. Assist.