MONTREAL – It looks like the Olympic break was just what the Montreal Canadiens needed.
Scott Gomez scored a goal and set up two others as Montreal downed the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-3 on Tuesday night for their fourth win in five games since the break.
The victory solidified the Canadiens’ hold on seventh place and opened a gap of seven points over the Lightning, one of the teams chasing them for a playoff spot in the NHL Eastern Conference. The Bolts have three games in hand.
Montreal sent only four players to the Games in Vancouver – Russian defenceman Andrei Markov, Slovak goalie Jaroslav Halak, Belarus winger Sergei Kostitsyn and Czech centre Tomas Plekanec – and all came back healthy.
As well, injured skaters Benoit Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn were ready to return after the Olympic rest, leaving only winger Mike Cammalleri and defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron among the wounded. Both are out with knee injuries.
It is perhaps the healthiest the Canadiens have been since the season opened in October.
And perhaps the team is starting to find some of the chemistry it has been seeking after wholesale roster changes were made last summer by former general manager Bob Gainey and his staff.
“We’re starting to get a sense of what it might have been like earlier if we hadn’t had the injuries,” said Gomez, one of the key off-season acquisitions along with linemate Brian Gionta and Cammalleri. “But a lot of teams have had injuries. We put ourselves in the situation we’re in, so we can’t worry about that.”
The situation is that while they are currently in a playoff spot, every team chasing them has at least one game in hand and some, like Boston and Florida, have three.
The remedy for that is to keep winning games and so far Montreal has done that.
After the Olympic break, they went on a four-game road trip on which they beat Boston 4-1, blew a lead and lost 3-2 in San Jose, and bounced back with wins of 4-2 in Los Angeles and 4-3 in Anaheim.
Some teams suffer a let-down on their first game home after a road trip, but the Canadiens took control against Tampa Bay early and never let the Bolts into the game.
“We now how important these games are,” said centre Glen Metropolit, who had his team-leading ninth power play goal of the season and added an assist. “We have to approach it like it’s playoff hockey now.”
Mathieu Darche, with two, and Pouliot also scored for Montreal (33-29-6), who are four games over .500 for the first time this season.
Steven Stamkos scored his 41st goal of the season and assisted on one by Martin St. Louis for Tampa Bay to extend his point streak to 17 straight games. It was also Stamkos’ team-record 17th power-play goal of the season.
“I’d like to do it in a win,” the 20-year-old said. “Nothing matters if we don’t make the playoffs.”
Matt Walker also scored for the Lightning (27-27-11), who have lost six of their last seven. Tampa Bay has the league’s second worst road record at 9-19-5, better only than Edmonton’s 8-21-2.
“That’s something we’ll have to fix to have a chance to make the playoffs,” Stamkos added.
The Oilers will be the next visitors to the Bell Centre on Thursday night.
Gomez has two goals and six assists in his last four games and five goals and 10 assists in his last 11, but said his personal success has much to do with being the playmaker on his line with Pouliot and Gionta, both consistent goal-scorers.
A second scoring line of Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn has recent call-up Tom Pyatt on left wing until Cammalleri returns from injury in about two weeks, but they have been aided by secondary scoring from the checking lines that was rare to see earlier in the season.
The Lightning came out flat and were called for too many men on the ice only 1:49 into the game. It took only a minute for Montreal to open the scoring.
Gomez carried the puck in, went around the net and fed the on-coming Metropolit for shot to the far post.
It was the much-travelled centre’s 15th goal of the season, a career high and one more than he scored in 61 games for Montreal last season.
“I guess I’m in my prime now,” the 35-year-old joked.
Gomez then picked up a loose puck in the corner and walked in front to beat Antero Niittymaki at 12:02.
The Lightning had heavy pressure on during a power play and Hal Gill threw a Halak rebound right onto Stamkos’ stick for a goal 3:47 into the second.
Gomez fed Pouliot going to the net for a goal only 41 seconds later and Darche added another at 7:33. He converted a Metropolit feed to chase Niittymaki, who allowed four goals on 13 shots, in favour of Mike Smith.
Walker’s point shot went in off Montreal winger Travis Moen’s stick at 10:03. It was only the third goal in 292 career NHL games for the native of Beaverlodge, Alta.
Tomas Plekanec pushed a puck forward for Darche to steer between Smith’s pads 3:36 into the third period and St. Louis backhanded a shot over Halak with 1:07 left to play.
Plekanec, the Canadiens scoring leader, was helped off and went to the dressing room at 16:25 of the first period after a knee-on-knee collision with Tampa defenceman Matthias Olhund, but was back on the bench a minute later and did not miss any action.
Notes: Ryan Malone (upper body), tough guy Zenon Konopka and Matt Smaby did not dress for Tampa Bay. Coach Rick Tocchet said Konopka has back spasms will be out for about a week. … Maxim Lapierre served the third game of his four-game suspension for a hit from behind on San Jose’s Scott Nichol. … Halak reached the 20-wins mark for the first time in his career. … The Lightning’s previous single season power-play goal record of 16 was shared by Vincent Lecavalier (2006-07) and Brian Bradley (1992-93).