MONTREAL -- The Tampa Bay Lightning finally found one obstacle they couldn't overcome: The Montreal Canadiens.
A season that featured the loss of one of the world's best players for four months, the trade of their longtime heart-and-soul leader, and a late-season injury to their goaltender came to an end Tuesday when the Lightning were swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Canadiens.
Max Pacioretty scored with 42.6 seconds left to negate a third-period Lightning comeback and gave the Canadiens a 4-3 win at Bell Centre, ending the Eastern Conference First Round series in four games.
"It's been well-documented what this team has gone through this year," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's been a transition year for us in an unbelievably positive way. I think we had 12 players make their NHL playoff debuts in this series. I'm sure that's somewhat unheard of.
"But the big thing was I said if we were going to go down, we were going to go down swinging. I thought we went down swinging."
The four straight wins by Montreal were a continuation of a strong finish to the regular season, with the Canadiens closing on an 11-3-1 run.
It is one coach Michel Therrien hopes will continue in the second round. The Canadiens will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings. The Bruins hold a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series after a 3-0 win in Detroit on Tuesday.
"We ended the season with confidence, we’ve played good hockey the last six or seven weeks, since the Olympic break," Therrien said. "Confidence is a big factor. Our team was confident in the way we were playing, the team believes in the way we play, so we start games with the intention of winning.
"If you look all the games in the playoffs, it was always us that dictated the play, we were the more aggressive team in terms of scoring chances and shots. We were well prepared and played with a lot of confidence."
The Lightning scored twice in the third period to tie the game 3-3, but rookie forward Cedric Paquette was called for tripping deep in the Montreal zone with 2:11 to play.
The Canadiens' power play was 1-for-12 the series and Pacioretty had yet to score a goal in the playoffs, but those trends ended at exactly the right moment for Montreal.
Defenseman P.K. Subban got the puck at the blue line and sent it across to forward Thomas Vanek for a one-timer that was bobbled by Lightning goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis, and Pacioretty was there to whack it through the goalie's legs.
"I thought we played really well the whole series," said Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who won his first playoff series since his rookie season in 2008. "There were breaks around each game that could have gone the other way. That team is a good hockey team over there. I just thought we got the majority of the breaks."
It was a dramatic end to a dramatic season for the Lightning.
Tampa Bay overcame a broken leg to Steven Stamkos and a trade request from captain Martin St. Louis to finish second in the Atlantic Division with 101 points, relying on rookies to stay afloat in Stamkos' absence and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Once there, the Lightning could not replicate what had worked so well for them in the regular season, struggling to overcome the Canadiens forecheck and turning over pucks coming out of their zone throughout the series.
The Lightning, who played the series without injured goaltender Ben Bishop, held a lead for 3:34 of the 258:08 played in the series and struggled to muster much of an attack.
One thing Cooper wanted to make sure to point out was the strong play of Paquette, who unfortunately found himself as a central figure in two of Montreal's game-winning goals in the series.
"He's the first guy I'm going to hug in the room because he was absolutely outstanding for us," Cooper said. "I hope nobody out there looks at Cedric Paquette and says he's the goat, because I believe we may not have been in those spots without him."
Goaltender Anders Lindback, starting in place of the injured Bishop (elbow), was pulled for the second time in four games after allowing three goals on 20 shots. Gudlevskis came in and stopped the first 16 shots he saw before finally flinching on the 17th.
Stamkos had two goals and two assists in the series, but the Canadiens did a good job of limiting his scoring opportunities.
"He's tough to contain," Therrien said. "We had to take time and space away from that guy because he can change the game in one shift. I thought we didn't give him the time and the space and we were frustrating him the way we were playing."
With the Canadiens leading 3-1 after two periods, the Lightning charged back with two goals in the opening 6:31 of the third.
After mustering 13 shots on goal in the first two periods, the Lightning came out for the third with a purpose, playing an aggressive forechecking style they had yet to show in the series until their season was on the line.
Victor Hedman gave the Lightning some life when he banked a shot from behind the goal line off Price's back and in at 3:29. A little more than three minutes later, a J.T. Brown shot from the side boards went off Subban's stick in front and bounced right to Johnson, who buried a shot behind Price at 6:31 for his first playoff goal.
Therrien called timeout and the Canadiens settled down.
"I just wanted to calm things down," he said. "We were playing on our heels too much and that's not what we wanted to do. It might be an unintentional, natural reaction. But we faced some adversity, and I liked the way we reacted."
The sweep means the Canadiens will now have upwards of a week to rest and prepare to play the winner of the Boston-Detroit series.
"We'll be well prepared, I can tell you that," Therrien said. "As far as I'm concerned, we won the series but we haven't accomplished what we set out to accomplish. For me this was a step, and we have another step to take."
For the second game in a row, the Canadiens scored in the opening minutes. Though it took longer than the 11 seconds Rene Bourque needed to score in Game 3, Daniel Briere put Tampa Bay in an early hole with his first playoff goal for Montreal at 2:24.
Canadiens rookie Michael Bournival skated the puck out of his end and chipped it to Dale Weise in the Lightning zone. When Weise beat Hedman to the corner, Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio decided to go at Weise, leaving Briere alone behind him. Weise sent it in front and Briere scored his 51st playoff goal in his 112th game to put the Canadiens ahead 1-0 on their second shot.
The Canadiens made it 2-0 at 15:21 when Paquette turned over the puck near center ice to Brian Gionta, who fed Lars Eller for a slap shot from the faceoff circle that beat Lindback to the far post for his second goal of the series.
Stamkos was called for tripping Alexei Emelin at 2:39 of the second, and was incensed afterward because he believed Emelin dove on the play. On the power play, Emelin gave the Lightning a goal with a turnover from behind his net that wound up in front.
Ondrej Palat grabbed the puck and wheeled around the net to attempt a wraparound that Price stopped, but the puck sat in the crease and was knocked in by Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges in the scramble at 4:32. The goal was upheld by a video review.
Montreal re-established the two-goal lead 70 seconds later when Gallagher took a Tomas Plekanec pass and beat Lindback with a shot from the faceoff circle to the far post. It ended Lindback's night and put the Canadiens ahead 3-1, setting up a Lightning comeback that fell short, much like their play throughout the series.
Four games after it began, the Lightning's return to the postseason is over. But Cooper said he feels the best for this young team remains ahead.
"Ultimately our goal was that we wanted to make the playoffs and we did that," Cooper said. "But we wanted to make sure that Tampa Bay Lightning fans, wherever they may be, were proud of their team, because I sure as [heck] was proud of our team. They made me a better person and a better coach and I couldn't have been more proud to coach that team."