MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens swept their way into the second round of the NHL playoffs, but not before the Tampa Bay Lightning made it interesting.
After the Canadiens blew a two-goal lead early in the third period, Max Pacioretty scored on a power play with 43 seconds left to play to lift them to a 4-3 victory and a sweep of their Eastern Conference quarter-final against the Lightning on Tuesday night.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Pacioretty, a 39-goal scorer in the regular season who got his first of the series. “I’ve been in a bit of a drought since the end of the year.
“I’ve been getting opportunities and missing my chances. But you wait for that bounce and I got it.”
Montreal won the best-of-seven series 4-0 and now face a long wait for the Eastern Conference semifinal against the winner of the Boston-Detroit series.
Pacioretty, who played for the United States at the Sochi Olympics in February, is glad for the rest.
“Going to Sochi and not having much time off, I feel this is going to be a good chance for me to get in the weight room and find some strength for round two,” he said.
“We have to take advantage of it and try to stay sharp as a group at the same time,” added Canadiens captain Brian Gionta.
It was Montreal’s first sweep since they took out the Buffalo Sabres in four in 1993 en route to the last of their 24 Stanley Cups.
The Canadiens built a 3-1 lead on goals from Daniel Briere, Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher between one by Tampa Bay’s Ondrej Palat.
But the Bolts amped up the pressure in the third period and tied the game through Victor Hedman and Tyler Johnson.
The officials had swallowed their whistles through most of the third frame, but referee Chris Lee was left with little choice with Cedric Paquette’s clear trip on Michael Bournival with 2:11 left to play, a foul that could have caused an even more controversial turnover.
Pacioretty was at the doorstep to whack a Thomas Vanek rebound past Kristers Gudlevskis for the game-winner.
“I’m not going to worry too much about that penalty,” said the rookie Paquette, who had been a ball of energy for Tampa Bay all game. “They didn’t call anything all game long. It just happened at the wrong time. He fell, and they called it. I’ll just have to learn from that.”
Lightning star Steven Stamkos didn’t like the call either, but didn’t dispute the Canadiens had the better of the play for most of the series against the rookie-laden Bolts lineup.
“We played like we had nothing to lose in the third,” said Stamkos. “We were the better team.
“It was tough to see a penalty called at that time in the game. I thought the referees did a good job of putting their whistles away and letting us play in the third. But a play 200 feet from our net gets called. It’s a tough way to lose—a power play goal with under a minute left to play in the game.
“But we learned a lot about what it takes to win in the playoffs. Let’s not kid ourselves: they were the better team for most of the series.”
For a second straight game, the Bell Centre was at a fever pitch with old-time pop star Ginette Reno singing the Canadian anthem. But while it took Rene Bourque only 11 seconds in to score the first goal in Game 3, this time it took 2:24 for Briere to open the scoring.
The Lightning defence abandoned the front of their net to chase Dale Weise in a corner and left Briere alone in front to score his first of the series and 51st playoff goal of his career.
The 36-year-old Briere, whose mother played Reno records in their home when he was growing up, had shaken hands with the Quebec pop diva as she left the ice.
“I guess she gave me a little energy when she walked off the ice and shook my hand,” said Briere. “It worked on the first shift.
“Maybe we could get a little seat for her right by the bench so she can touch all the guys.”
The Canadiens had a 15-6 shot advantage in the period and made it 2-0 when Gionta picked Paquette’s pocket in the neutral zone and sent Eller in on the left side to blast a low shot past Anders Lindback.
The Lightning caught a break while killing a penalty at 4:32 of the second frame when Alexei Emelin misplayed a puck behind the net and Palat swept around and pushed the puck in among a pile-up of players. The goal stood up to video review.
But only 1:10 later, Tomas Plekenec sent Gallagher in on the right side to wrist a shot in off the post to restore the two-goal lead. The 21-year-old has five goals in nine career playoff games.
That chased Lindback, who allowed three goals on 20 shots, in favour of Gudlevskis, who made 16 saves before Pacioretty finally beat him.
There were flashbacks to Sochi as Gudlevskis was the goalie who threw a scare into Canada with a 55-save effort in Latvia’s 2-1 defeat. Carey Price was to goalie in the opposite net in that game as well.
“He’s a very good goaltender,” said Price. “He made a few good stops, but we were hungry and found a way to put one in.
“They were playing desperate. They came at us with a lot of speed. Desperate teams tend to get more breaks, for some reason.”
Added Pacioretty of Gudlevskis: “It would have been a nice story. He’s a competitor and he’s had a lot of success this year. My job was the make sure it wouldn’t be a story and it didn’t change the series.”
The Lightning poured it on in the third and Hedman scored at 3:29 by banking a shot in off Price from behind the net.
Three minutes later, J.T. Brown threw a pass in front that went off P.K. Subban’s skate right to Johnson for a goal on a quick shot from close range.
Then Pacioretty ended it, giving each of Montreal’s four lines one goal. It was only the second power play goal of the series for the Canadiens.
“I knew I had to step up,” Pacioretty said. “I’ve been frustrated lately and the only thing that kept me sane was the team winning and other people scoring.
“When you realize you can end the series with one shot, that frustration goes away for a brief moment and that’s what happened.”
Notes: The Lightning pulled Radko Gudas, who has a suspected lower body injury, and Tom Pyatt from the lineup and put in Mike Kostka and Keith Aulie. . . Montreal made no changes.