MONTREAL – The Tampa Bay Lightning began the NHL season with Mike Smith as their No. 1 goaltender, but Antero Niittymaki is making a serious bid for the job.
Niittymaki made 36 saves, including 15 in the third period, in his third straight start as the Lightning downed the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 on Saturday night.
“I wasn’t seeing the puck that well in the first period, but I made a couple of saves and felt better and better,” the 29-year-old said. “It was a big win. The last three games we’ve played well.”
Ryan Malone and Alex Tanguay each had a goal and an assist, while Vincent Lacavalier had a pair of assists for Tampa Bay (6-4-5), which went 2-0-1 after dropping the opener of a four-game road trip at Philadelphia on Monday. James Wright also scored for Tampa Bay,
Brian Gionta scored his seventh goal for Montreal (8-9-0), which has lost four of six. Carey Price, who stopped 18 shots, fell to 3-7-0.
Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said this week that he would go with whichever goaltender was hottest and that clearly is Niittymaki. Smith is 2-3-3 and was in goal for the 6-2 loss in Philadelphia.
He went with Niittymaki despite the Finnish goaltender’s shaky history against the Canadiens. He is now 2-8-1 against the Habs in his career.
“I saw that stat this morning and I said ‘Wow, I’ve had some good games here,”‘ Niittymaki said. “The stats don’t show that, but I hope they’re a little better after tonight.”
The Canadiens have now dropped two in a row at home, although they were coming off a 2-1 win in Boston on Thursday.
Coach Jacques Martin said Wright’s goal at 18:01 of the second period to give the Bolts their 3-1 lead was the back-breaker.
The Canadiens had sustained pressure in the Tampa Bay zone, but on a counter-attack, Tanguay’s backhand shot dropped behind Price and the puck slid in when Wright crashed the net. Referee Dennis LaRue signalled a goal and it stood up after a video review.
Martin didn’t dispute the goal, but he had issues with his forwards on the ice at the time, particularly Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre, who were benched for the rest of the game. And rookie Tom Pyatt saw only two more shifts on a penalty kill.
“We were looking for a goal from players who could give us some punch,” said Martin. “When we shortened the bench, I thought we’ve got to win some battles and get some production and I went with the people who were willing to go to war.”
Ryan White, who was called up this week with Pyatt, got promoted to the second line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn in the final two periods and played well in only his second NHL game, mostly against the rugged Malone.
Malone opened the scoring with his 10th goal in 15 games on a power play at 10:09.
Lecavalier recorded his second straight assist when Tanguay’s third goal of the season put Tampa Bay up 2-0 with 47 seconds left in the first.
Tanguay, who signed a one-year deal with the Lightning after he failed to receive an offer from Montreal, scored for the second straight game when he flipped a rebound of Malone’s shot from the left side past Price for his third goal.
“It was really disappointing – I thought I’d get some kind of offer from Montreal,” Tanguay said. “But that’s their decision.
“It’s nice to get the win. That puts us into a playoff position, so we’re not on the outside looking in, and to do that we had to get ahead of the Canadiens.”
Gionta drew the Canadiens within 2-1 with a power-play goal midway through the second.
Limited to one point in his first seven games with Tampa Bay, Tanguay earned an assist on Wright’s goal for his seventh point in six games.
There were some scattered boos early on from the Bell Centre crowd of 21,273 for Lecavalier, the Montreal native who was the centre of trade rumours to Montreal last season, and Tanguay, but they quickly died away.
“I thought the fans were very respectful,” said Tanguay.
NOTES: Rookie Lightning D Victor Hedman didn’t play. Hedman, chosen second overall by Tampa Bay in this year’s draft, sat out for precautionary reasons after a hit by Ottawa’s Chris Neil knocked him out of Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Senators. … Montreal C Kyle Chipchura and LW Gregory Stewart were healthy scratches for a second straight game in favour of C Tom Pyatt and RW Ryan White, who made their NHL debuts Thursday. … D Jay Leach, picked up by Montreal off waivers from New Jersey on Friday, didn’t play.