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Lightning defeat Canadiens, advance to East Final

by Arpon Basu /

TAMPA -- The pressure, everyone kept saying, had shifted to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

After winning the first three games in their Eastern Conference Second Round series, they were on the verge of blowing it.

The Montreal Canadiens had found their game and were brimming with confidence.

A Game 7 at Bell Centre would have been akin to a Canadiens coronation.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper heard all these things being said about the Lightning, and he said nothing.

Inside, he knew.

And he was right.

The Lightning won the best-of-7 series at Amalie Arena on Tuesday with their most complete game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, stifling the Canadiens in a 4-1 defensive masterpiece.

"I just remember Game 5, and everyone is saying the pressure is on us and we've dropped two and all these things, but the calm I had inside myself about this team, I knew as we went on in Game 5 and the way we played in that third period … we were on them," Cooper said. "I felt our game was changing. The look in the players' eyes after that game, a calm went over me. I knew these guys would roll."

Nikita Kucherov had two goals and an assist, and Ondrej Palat had a goal and an assist to make sure the collapse people were predicting didn't happen, with the Lightning dominating play from the first intermission onward and getting solid goaltending from Ben Bishop, who made 18 saves to continue his impressive run in his first career appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Bishop has allowed one goal in two series-clinching wins.

"Obviously, the guys have a lot to do with that," Bishop said. "I thought that was probably our best game, maybe since Game 1 of the playoffs. Hopefully we can take this and keep building on it."

The Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2011. They will face the winner of Game 7 between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The only Lightning players who were also on that 2011 team are defenseman Victor Hedman and captain Steven Stamkos, who finally looked like his usual, dominant self in Game 6 after struggling offensively for much of the playoffs.

"I've always talked about 2011 was the most fun I've ever had playing this game," Stamkos said. "We're getting on that right now. Obviously, I want a little better result this time, but this group has been resilient all year. We've got a guy like [Bishop] back in the net, we've got to believe anything's possible here."

The Lightning advanced again this time because of the "Triplets" line of Kucherov, Palat and center Tyler Johnson. After Johnson dominated the first round with six goals against the Detroit Red Wings, it was Kucherov's turn in the second round with six goals in six games.

"Last year I think we were a young group," Kucherov said. "I think half the team didn't play a playoff game, and this year we are more mature and have more confidence."

Canadiens goaltender Carey Price lost in an elimination game for the first time in eight tries dating to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where he helped Canada win the goal medal. In his previous seven elimination games -- three at the Olympics, two in last season's playoffs and Games 4 and 5 of this series -- Price had allowed five goals on 176 shots.

Price allowed three on 28 shots Tuesday. It was hardly Price's fault the Canadiens lost, even though he felt differently.

"I didn't play well enough for us to win the series," Price said. "I think that's basically more or less what it comes down to. We lost a lot of tight games. I just needed to make that one more save in all the games that we lost and I didn't do that."

The first period turned significantly on two plays that took place in a span of less than three minutes just past the midway point, and Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec was in the middle of each.

Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher made a great play in the Tampa Bay end to chip the puck around defenseman Jason Garrison and get it in front to Plekanec. Bishop got across and made a pad save on Plekanec, who was all alone but could not elevate the puck, at 13:09.

Plekanec had an opportunity to clear the puck from the Canadiens zone on his next shift but didn't, and Palat wound up taking a sharp-angled shot on goal that Kucherov tipped into the top corner behind Price at 15:35 for his fifth goal of the series.

Plekanec felt the turnaround there typified what ended the Canadiens' season.

"It's the same story as pretty much the whole series," he said. "I thought I had a hell of a chance there, should have put it in. We would have been up by one. [Gallagher] had a good chance. We could have scored goals, then they did, and since the second period we started pressing, forcing the plays too much. They were playing whatever they needed to, and we were just pushing without any support, without any other plays that we wanted."

The first period was evenly played aside from that stretch, with the Lightning coming out with a decisive 13-6 edge in shots based on testing Price five times on the lone power play of the opening 20 minutes.

The second period, however, was not evenly played. And that's when the Lightning won the game.

The Canadiens came out for the second looking jittery, unable to string passes together or get the puck through the neutral zone effectively. The Lightning were ready to pounce, and it didn't take long for their captain to do just that.

Stamkos skated into the offensive zone, took a pass in the slot from Alex Killorn and deftly maneuvered the puck in front of Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry before putting a shot over Price's left shoulder at 5:12 of the second to put the Lightning ahead 2-0. It was Stamkos' third goal of the series after he was held without a goal in seven games against Detroit.

"You're just not going to keep him down," Cooper said. "Sure he's going to go some games without scoring, but there's a reason he's got 250 goals and was one of the fastest players to do it in the League, is he knows what to do."

Stamkos scored on Tampa Bay's fourth shot of the period; Montreal did not get its first until a minute later.

The Lightning continued to carry the play through much of the period before Andrej Sustr was called for slashing at 16:05, giving the Canadiens' embattled power play an opportunity to make an impact in the series.

It didn't, and when the Lightning got the same opportunity 33 seconds after killing off the Sustr penalty when Canadiens forward Devante Smith-Pelly was called for holding, they capitalized almost immediately.

"The special teams, not only the power play but our penalty kill, they weren't good," Montreal coach Michel Therrien said.

Palat sent the puck to Kucherov in the corner and cut straight to the net, taking the return pass and quickly beating Price with a shot to the far post for his third of the playoffs at 18:56 of the second, making it 3-0.

The score was fitting, considering it represented the lead the Lightning once held in this series, but the Canadiens made only a minor dent in it when Max Pacioretty scored late in a third period that played out more like a parade toward the inevitable.

Kucherov iced it with an empty-net goal with 2:01 to play.

The final period gave the sellout Amalie Arena crowd, one that appeared nervous when the game began, a chance to cheer and exhale a sigh of relief.

Their beloved Lightning players on the ice could do the same thing as they, and their fans, await their next opponent.

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