With a 6-2 blowout win over Tampa Bay Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens avoided the ignominy of being swept in their second-round showdown against the Lightning team they swept in the first round of the 2013-14 post-season. But although they're headed back to Montreal and an undoubtedly-electric Bell Centre for Game 5 Saturday, the Habs are still very much behind the eight-ball.
As they showed in Round 1 vs. Detroit, the Lightning aren't a perfect team and are perfectly capable of coming up with a flat effort or two in a series. But the Habs will be facing a Bolts squad that has yet to lose two consecutive games in these playoffs and it remains a near-insurmountable task for them to sweep the final four games of this battle.
The Canadiens took it to Tampa right out of the gate in Game 4 of the series, going up 1-0 on an Andrei Markov goal 2:44 into the first, extending the lead on a Max Pacioretty shorthanded goal six minutes later, and chased goalie Ben Bishop from the Lightning's net at the 5:08 mark of the second period after he surrendered a weak goal to David Desharnais. Bishop allowed three goals on 14 shots, but his replacement Andrei Vasilevskiy didn't fair much better, giving up a pair of goals in a 15-second span midway through the second period to make it 5-0 and essentially put the game out of reach.
All in all, Montreal dominated Tampa Bay, got a typically solid start out of goalie Carey Price (who stopped 22 of 24 shots), forced the Lightning into 10 giveaways while making only three themselves, and, perhaps most importantly, received long-overdue production from its forwards: Pacioretty finished Game 4 with a game-best three points; twenty-one-year-old center Alex Galchenyuk chipped in a pair of assists and finished tied with teammate Lars Eller for the most shots of any player (six); and Desharnais and Brandon Prust both scored their first playoff goals this year. They looked like a team that knew it was getting a giant monkey off its back by ending their eight-game losing skid against the Bolts (including the regular-and-post-season).
With Price between the pipes, Montreal has more of a shot of winning three more games to move on to the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight season. But there are a few reasons to believe the hole they dug in Games 1-through-3 is too deep from which to self-rescue.
As noted above, the Lightning haven't dropped two games in a row since the playoffs began. In their opening-round matchup against Detroit, they lost Games 3 and 5 by a combined score of 7-0, yet were resilient enough to rebound from a 3-2 series deficit and eliminate Mike Babcock's charges in seven games. The Bolts have such a wealth of talent – and such a capable bench boss in the unflappable Jon Cooper – they don't dwell on things that don't go their way. More than likely, Bishop will be back in net for Game 5 and eager to avenge his worst performance since Game 1 vs. the Wings, and given that he had posted a .970 save percentage in his previous four games, you can't help but think he'll present a far tougher challenge for the Habs on Saturday.
And there are other reasons for the Canadiens to worry about what's still to come for them. Despite recording his second assist in as many games Thursday, superstar center Steven Stamkos failed to register a shot on net for the second straight game – but in Tampa Bay's 6-2 Game 2 romp, he had his best playoff game yet this year with a goal and three points. To imagine he's not going to have any impact on the scoresheet in the next three games is to wish upon a star.
Dreams can come true for any team, especially one with Price stopping pucks for them. But make no mistake: at this point in the series, this dream is still a lot closer to Pipe Level than it is to the Come True stage.
The Habs clearly aren't pushovers, but the Lightning aren't a Jenga puzzle built on a three-legged table. And they're still the favorites, no matter how off-kilter they appeared Thursday.