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Canadiens, their fans enjoy wild ride during playoff race

Enthusiastic support in Montreal as battle for East wild-card spot goes down to final games

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- There was Stanley Cup Playoff hockey in this city Tuesday. Now all the Montreal Canadiens have to do is actually make it to the postseason.

The Canadiens' come-from-behind 4-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning put a charge through an arena and a fan base that, 80 games ago, probably thought that a trip to the playoffs was a fantasy.

"This was like a playoff game tonight," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said after his team defeated the Lightning, the Presidents' Trophy winner as the NHL's best team of this regular season. "We're hoping we see these guys again because more than likely that's what would happen, right? Maybe tonight was the beginning of a series of eight games. We'll see by the end of the week."

The Canadiens victory indeed keeps alive the possibility of a Montreal-Tampa Bay series in the Eastern Conference First Round. No matter whom the Canadiens might face, their fans are wildly fired up about the tantalizing prospect of postseason hockey.

"You could feel the intensity," Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar said in a businesslike, forward-looking dressing room. "For us, (every game) is sudden death almost."

Video: BUF@MTL: Tatar pots empty-netter in 500th NHL game

Is this a team that believes it has nothing to lose this final week of the schedule, or everything to gain?

"They both mean the same to me," said Tatar, who has 58 points (25 goals, 33 assists) since coming to Montreal from the Vegas Golden Knights on Sept. 9 with prospect Nick Suzuki in a trade for forward Max Pacioretty.

The energy in Bell Centre was electric. When the Canadiens fell behind in games early this season, the arena sagged in resignation. Twice on Tuesday it grew only louder and more supportive when the home team fell behind by a goal.

"I never doubted the Montreal atmosphere," Tatar said. "When I played here as a visitor, the atmosphere was always great, it was fun to play here. I'm really enjoying it as a guy playing for the Canadiens now."

Forward Max Domi, who had a Steven Stamkos shot deflect off his skate past Canadiens goalie Carey Price 2:28 into the first period, scored Montreal's fourth goal, his 28th of the season, midway through the third.

"We knew we had to play a full 60 [minutes], they're the best in the league, right?" Domi said. "They've had a pretty impressive year, you're never really safe against that team. That's how we played, (with) a lot of desperation, a lot of character. A big game by a lot of guys tonight."

Video: TBL@MTL: Domi buries wrist shot on breakaway

No one on the Canadiens admitted to focusing on the scoreboard, Eastern Conference wild-card rivals Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes each in action. But in the dressing room, the picture was clear to everyone.

By night's end, the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes had shuffled in the order thanks to Columbus' 6-2 home loss to the Boston Bruins and Carolina's 4-1 win against the Maple Leafs in Toronto. The Hurricanes are now one point ahead of the Blue Jackets for the first wild card into the playoffs from the East; the Canadiens are tied in points for the second wild-card spot with Columbus, who hold the edge based on their three more regulation/overtime wins (ROW).

Montreal will play the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NBCSWA, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS, NHL.TV), then finish the regular season at home on Saturday against the Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET, CBC, TVAS, SN, SN1, NHLN, NHL.TV).

"I really like this, when it comes to this time of year, the opportunity to play past this week," Julien said with a grin, quizzed about the state of his blood pressure. "It's a lot of fun. The worst scenario is we've got teams right now that are playing to be spoilers (while) we're playing to try to get into the playoffs. This is a great time and I want the guys to enjoy the process, which I think so far they are."

This arguably was the Canadiens' best effort of the season, four quite evenly rolled lines pouring 45 shots at Lightning goalie Eddie Pasquale, who was appearing in just his second career NHL game.

The Lightning, having played Monday in Ottawa, were "banged up," in the pregame words of coach Jon Cooper, missing defensemen Victor Hedman and Dan Girardi, even if welcoming defenseman Anton Stralman back after he missed 11 games with injury.

Cooper knew his team had its work cut out on the second half of a back-to-back with a depleted lineup, a third-string goalie and an opponent frantic for two points.

"The one thing Montreal does is they skate and they work," Cooper said. "When you do that on a consistent basis, you're going to keep teams on their heels a little bit. Then you throw in the X-factor, Carey Price (who made 22 saves Tuesday), and he keeps you in games no matter how it's going. That's what makes Montreal dangerous. They just don't quit, they just keep coming. … It's a 60-minute grind when you play Montreal and I think Claude (Julien) has done an unreal job with this group."

This entire city and Canadiens fans far beyond it will be on the edge of their seats Thursday for the game against the Capitals, while keeping an eye focused on the Hurricanes' game at the New Jersey Devils. The Blue Jackets next play at the New York Rangers on Friday.

And should the Canadiens still be in the hunt come Saturday, how perfect that their opponent on the final day of the regular season will be archrival Toronto, historically the Canadiens' most bitter opponent and one that always brings many rowdy fans to spice up the arena. That one should feel like just one more Game 7.

"It's fun to play at the Bell Centre," Tatar said. "Our fans get us going."

If a wild crowd didn't score a goal for the home team on Tuesday, it certainly earned an assist.

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