By Brian Cazeneuve
It wasn’t a huge surprise that the series opener between the Canadiens and the Lightning went to overtime, but the score itself was a bit of a stunner. After the teams combined for 11 goals in four games during the regular season, the clubs scored nine on Wednesday night in a 5-4 win for Montreal. Veteran forward Danny Briere set up Dale Weise at 18:08 of the extra period to end a mistake-filled Game 1. If there was a surprise during the contest, it was the significant number of errors made by two teams who had worked hard to keep mistakes to a minimum during the season.
Some thoughts on the Canadiens' series-opening victory:
• P.K. Subban is really struggling. The All-Star and Olympic gold medalist for Canada was benched for part of a late-season game against the Senators, and he went scoreless and was minus-5 over his last six games. And on Wednesday night, he made a lazy play that led to Tampa Bay’s first goal. After Radko Gudas fired a shot that missed the net and caromed off the wall behind him, Subban had a simple play to make as the rebound popped high in the air: grab the puck and drop it to get it safely out of the danger zone. That’s basic stuff,. Instead, Subban tried to swat the puck out of the air. He missed. Bad things happen when you swing and miss because your momentum has taken you away from the play and your stick is now up in the air where it isn’t supposed to be. Soon after, the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov cashed in Subban's mistake for the first goal of the playoffs. The rookie Kucherov, who also scored in his first regular-season tilt, definitely has a scorer’s touch.
• Of course, just 19 seconds after Kucherov’s goal, Tampa Bay gave back another one with a textbook example of poor goaltending by Anders Lindback. Montreal's Tomas Plekanec got the goal when he broke down the left wing and fired the puck into the top corner on the far side of the cage, past Lindback’s glove. It was a fine shot, but the goalie sure made it easy for him by overcompensating and sliding way off to his right, completely losing his angle and giving Plekanec half the net at which to shoot. Lindback struggled for much of the season, which allowed Ben Bishop to step in and become one of the league’s emerging young stars. But if Bishop and his bum wrist are unable to go for the rest of the series -- he is expected back before the end of it -- Lindback will have to play better. He wasn’t the only one to whiff on the play. Watch the blooper-reel splat by Gudas, who fell over as he tried to keep up with Plekanec while skating backwards.
• Wow, it must be the playoffs. What a timely backcheck in the second period by Thomas Vanek to break up a scoring chance for Steven Stamkos. That was big-league hacking and whacking by a guy known more for scoring. After serving sentences in Buffalo and on Long Island, Vanek must be glad to know what it feels like to be a postseason player.
• It was a goal-scorer’s tally from Stamkos that put the Lightning up 2-1. He traveled end-to-end with a head of steam that was too much for the Canadiens’ Brandon Prust and Alexei Emelin, who tried to cut Stamkos off before he beat goalie Carey Price with a low, hard wrister from the right circle. If you want to stop Stamkos, the time to do it is in one of the other two zones, before he cranks up that kind of speed.
• It was a tough day for Gudas, who resembled a slalom gate when Plekanec scooted past him on a breakaway later in the second period and clanged a shot off the pipe. This could be a long series for Tampa Bay if the Canadiens forwards are going to have an easy time carrying speed into the offensive zone.
• Speaking of goal-scorers’ goals, Brian Gionta scored a shorthanded one in the second period, evening the game at 2-2. Many shooters instinctively pull themselves away from the scoring area when they go in on a breakaway. They shouldn't -- they're only doing the opposition a favor. Gionta once scored 48 goals and he knows better. Lindback stopped Gionta's first shot. But the Montreal captain slowed down just enough and kept his angle so he could convert his own rebound, still on the forehand.
• Sometimes the Lightning go for the hero play instead of the safe one. It’s a result of being a young, energetic and offensively gifted team. With five minutes gone in the third period, Tampa Bay had control of the puck in the Montreal zone when the Lightning failed to keep a free puck in at the left point. Both Michael Kostka and J. T. Brown could have corralled the puck by turning back out of the zone, shielding the Canadiens' players from the puck and giving themselves a chance to take it on their forehand. Instead, Kostka tried to corrall the puck with a backhand swipe, but Gionta blocked the puck, leading to a breakout in the opposite direction. Lars Eller converted Rene Bourque’s pass to give Montreal its first lead.
• Eight minutes into the third, Tampa Bay scored to tie the game at 3-3 with its very first shot of the period. Canadiens tough guy Prust, who's normally good at securing the puck, had a chance to handle a bouncer off the boards in his own end, but he let the Lightnings' Tyler Johnson knock the puck off his stick. Alex Killorn then picked it up and beat Price with a quick snapshot. It was a rare mistake. Prust doesn’t always see the ice on a regular basis. Sometimes Danny Briere takes minutes away from him when Montreal is trailing. But Prust is usually the safer player when his club is ahead.
• The goal that put the Canadiens ahead 4-3 took a superb effort from Vanek, who showed again that he can play at both ends of the ice. First he intercepted a pass from Killorn and started out of his own end. He fed David Desharnais for a give-and-go and muscled his way into some free ice once he crossed into the slot. Defenseman Eric Brewer had position on him, but Vanek pushed his way around Brewer so he could accept the pass, and then slapped it past Lindback, who made a poor read on the play. The Tampa goalie could have taken a step out, seeing Vanek’s compromised position, and made a simple poke check. Instead he stayed back, giving Vanek enough room to jam the puck past him. Vanek had a super game, jumping into plays at both ends of the ice and putting seven shots on goal.
• Stamkos tied the game at 4-4 at 13:27 of the third because of an unnecessary pinch by Montreal defenseman Mike Weaver, who failed to keep the puck in at the right point. Killorn shot past him and fed Stamkos for an easy conversion into a wide-open cage after Price committed to an initial shot that never came.
• Briere is a proven playoff performer, though he has never won a Stanley Cup. He plays bigger than his size, and that was never truer than on the game-winner at 18:08 of overtime. The Canadiens’ Josh Gorges flipped the puck around the wall from the point to the back of the net, Briere controlled it and used his 5-foot-9, 174-pound frame to block Lightning defenseman Brewer, who is 6-4 and 215 pounds. With his back to the slot, Briere slid a backhand pass to the front of the net, where Weise was able to convert the game-winner. Brewer needed to get better leverage on the much smaller Briere and somebody needed to pick up Weise, who had way too much time alone in the slot. It was Briere’s 109th career postseason point in 108 games.
• Tampa Bay has to get more pucks on Price, who doesn’t appear nearly as confident as he did in Sochi, where he backstopped Canada to a gold medal. The visiting Habs outshot the home team 44-25 for the game, even though both teams had nine apiece in overtime. At one point in the third period, the Canadiens were outshooting the Lightning 13-2.
• There were positive signs for Tampa Bay. According to official numbers -- which can be twisted a bit from scorer to scorer -- the Lightning had a significant edge in both hits (40-27) and face-off wins (50-36). They must translate that extra puck possession into more shots. Desharnais won just three of 17 face-offs for Montreal. Nate Thompson (6-of-14) and Valtteri Filppula (9-of-18) had superb nights in the circle for Tampa Bay.