MONTREAL – One season after the Montreal Canadiens confronted all the adversity they could handle, the team coasted through most of this one without hitting so much as a speed bump, leaving everyone to wonder when exactly that rough patch would come.
When it finally did, it was a doozy.
The Canadiens had lost three straight games by a combined score of 18-8 entering their contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night -- and after taking a 2-0 lead, Montreal was less than a minute from heading to overtime, where the possibility of a fourth straight defeat loomed large.
But captain Brian Gionta made sure that didn't happen by scoring his second goal of the game on a power play with 46.4 seconds remaining in regulation to give the Canadiens a much-needed 3-2 win and strengthen their hold on home ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"The way things have been going the last few games, it took a lot of character to stick with that and battle through that," said Gionta, who scored his 13th and 14th goals of the season. "When you're going through rough patches, it's easy to lose your confidence right there when you give up a lead, but we stuck with it."
Canadiens goaltender Carey Price had allowed 12 of the 18 goals against during the three-game slide – on only 53 shots – and his play took the brunt of the analysis of a panicky fan base that saw its team struggling just before the playoffs. Price benefited from the Lightning hitting two goal posts and a crossbar in the first period, but then settled down nicely to finish with 32 saves, including highlight-reel stops on Richard Panik and Martin St. Louis.
It's yet another crisis Price has had to navigate in Montreal; at the age of 25, he's become somewhat of an expert.
"It's tough as a goaltender here. It can be nerve-wracking," Price said. "At the same time I've got a lot of experience dealing with these types of situations. You've just got to take a step back, relax, put in some honest work and usually those bad times don't hang around for too long."
Price's experience in the city has given him the perspective not to take the whims of Canadiens fans overly seriously, yet at the same time his team's play of late was of concern in the room. He said hitting a bad stretch prior to the playoffs may have contributed to the panic of the fans, but it was actually good timing for the team.
"It might be slightly beneficial to go through some sort of adversity before we hit the playoffs," Price said. "We haven't really gone through any this season. If we continue to play well, this might help us in the end."
Alex Galchenyuk also scored for the Canadiens (27-12-5), who moved into sole possession of first in the Northeast Division. Montreal is two points ahead of the idle Boston Bruins, who hold two games in hand.
The Canadiens also increased their lead on the fifth-place Toronto Maple Leafs to six points with each team having four games left to play, including a head-to-head matchup in the final game of the season.
Montreal coach Michel Therrien agreed with his goalie that the past couple of weeks may allow his team to get mentally sharp prior to the playoffs.
"Every team goes through adversity. It's not a bad thing to go through adversity, and it's not a bad thing to have it at this time of year," Therrien said. "It makes you realize a lot of things. When everything's going well, you might not pay as much attention to the details. But adversity brings back your concentration, it brings back your work ethic, it brings back the need to pay attention to details."
Panik and Vincent Lecavalier scored for the Lightning (17-23-4), who lost their fifth straight game and completed a four-game road trip without a victory.
Even though it's been obvious for weeks, the Lightning was officially eliminated from playoff contention for a fifth time in six seasons, but coach Jon Cooper saw a lot of good things from his team.
"I haven't been here that long, but that was the best game we've played from start to finish," Cooper said. "I thought we controlled a lot of the play. I don't know what the scoring chances were but I'd have to say we were on the positive end of that. Unfortunately, we're on the negative end of the score. But if you can play consistently the way we did tonight, we're going to win more games than we lose."
The teams were scoreless after one, but the Lightning could have entered the first intermission with a lead after Teddy Purcell, Steven Stamkos and Lecavalier each struck iron behind Price, who also made a brilliant blocker save on Panik alone in the slot with about four minutes to play.
Price was forced to shine again a minute into the second when Stamkos found St. Louis behind the Montreal defense. St. Louis cut across the front of the net and tried to lift a shot over a sprawled out Price, but the Canadiens goalie lifted his pad in time to keep it out.
"I'm really proud of Carey Price tonight," Therrien said. "He bounced back, he made some key saves. He was lucky at times, and you need some luck, you need some breaks to win hockey games. I've always believed that. You need breaks, you need calls at the right time to be successful. This is what we got tonight. We got some breaks and we capitalized on it."
The Canadiens took their first lead in four games at 4:04 of the second period on Galchenyuk's ninth of the season and sixth in eight games. The rookie fought off a check to tap a loose puck in the crease behind Ben Bishop put Montreal up 1-0.
Gionta made it 2-0 off a horrible giveaway in his own zone by Ryan Malone, who made a behind-the-back pass that went straight to Max Pacioretty at the Lightning blue line. Pacioretty found Tomas Plekanec across the ice, and he immediately directed a hard pass to Gionta for a deflection at 15:05.
A needless interference penalty by P.K. Subban allowed Tampa Bay back in the game late in the second. Viktor Hedman found Panik with a pass just outside the Montreal crease, and Panik deftly pivoted around in tight quarters to get to the other side of the net and beat Price at 17:36.
The Lightning tied it 2-2 at 5:07 of the third as the Canadiens were unable to break up a scramble in front of their own net; Pouliot eventually found Lecavalier alone off to the side for the Tampa Bay captain's 10th of the season.