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Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Montr?al Canadiens 1 FINAL @NHLdotcom

MONTREAL (AP) _ Brad Richards finished what Vincent Lecavalier started and the Tampa Bay Lightning swept their way to the conference finals for the first time.

Richards scored his second straight winning goal and the Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 Thursday night. Tampa Bay handed the Canadiens just their second series sweep on home ice after Buffalo did it in the second round in 1998.

``It's incredible, game-winners or not, just to come in here and win in this atmosphere,'' Richards said. ``You saw how the atmosphere is at the start of the game and all that _ it's just so much fun. It's the best time of your life and you just want to enjoy it.''

The Lightning had never advanced past the second round in their first 11 NHL seasons, but now will have time off before facing either the Toronto Maple Leafs or Philadelphia Flyers with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on the line.

``I think as you go through trying to get 16 wins to win a Stanley Cup you need to have some time to heal,'' Lightning coach John Tortorella said. ``To get a series done four straight is certainly going to help us because we have some guys banged up.''

The Flyers lead the Maple Leafs 2-1 and the earliest they can advance is Sunday.

``We're just going to watch those other teams battle it out,'' Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle said. ``Hopefully they can go to seven games and we'll be a little bit fresher for the next series.''

Fredrik Modin scored into an empty net with 55.3 seconds remaining for the Lightning, who have won seven straight playoff games since losing Game 2 to the New York Islanders in the first round.

Nikolai Khabibulin stopped 27 shots, allowing only Niklas Sundstrom's goal 5:46 in. Khabibulin, who has allowed nine goals in nine games, leads NHL goalies with four shutouts and a 0.99 goals-against-average in the playoffs.

``Nic has been the backbone of the team and everybody else has contributed,'' Tortorella said. ``That's what has to happen.''

Richards and Lecavalier, stars as juniors in Quebec, combined to make the Lightning just the fourth team to sweep the Canadiens in a best-of-seven series.

Lecavalier, who scored five goals in the first three games _ including the tying goal with 16.5 seconds left in regulation in Game 3 _ assisted on Boyle's first goal of the playoffs to tie the game midway through the second.

``We were working hard and I got a couple of lucky bounces, like tonight _ I was trying to pass the puck to the point and it went off someone's leg and went in,'' Lecavalier said. ``Sometimes that's how it is.''

Richards, who scored 1:05 into overtime in Tuesday's 4-3 win, beat goalie Jose Theodore with a sensational backhand shot at 17:14 of the second period to silence the enthusiastic crowd.

Montreal didn't have much left against the top-seeded Lightning after rallying from a 3-1 series deficit against Boston in the first round.

``It is a very empty feeling right now,'' Canadiens captain Saku Koivu said. ``To play for so long, go through so much, and then all of a sudden the season is done and there's no tomorrow for us.''

Koivu _ who coach Claude Julien revealed was injured in the first game of the playoffs and played with broken ribs, torn cartilage and a bruised lung _ said on Wednesday that he wouldn't consider this season a success if the Canadiens were swept by the Lightning.

``It's a frustrating feeling, especially the way we played hard the last two games,'' he said Thursday. ``We played well, but we didn't get the result.''

Montreal came out aggressively in the first period and caught an early break when Boyle fell down and turned over the puck on the play that led to Sundstrom's goal.

Joe Juneau recovered the puck along the left boards and put a backhand pass across the ice to Sundstrom, who drove down the right side and flipped a backhander over Khabibulin's right leg.

The Canadiens outshot Tampa Bay 11-8 in the period but lost left wing Richard Zednik to an apparent leg injury with 53 seconds remaining.

Zednik, reunited on a line with Koivu and Alex Kovalev, already had three shots when he put a pass from Kovalev off the crossbar before he was tackled from behind by Modin.

Zednik was helped off the ice by Kovalev and didn't return.

The Lightning tied it on a power play 11:57 into the second when Lecavalier's pass from the right corner struck Boyle's leg and bounced past Theodore.

Richards got his fourth goal of the playoffs at 17:14 on a give-and-go with Dimitry Afanasenkov.

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