By Sarah Kwak
Max Pacioretty had been searching, scavenging for his opportunity all game long -- well, no, it had been more like all week. Goalless for six-plus games, he was approaching his longest scoring drought of the season. While he watched Canadiens teammates Brendan Gallagher and Rene Bourque make their mark on this postseason series against the Lightning, Pacioretty waited patiently and stuck to his game. Though Montreal coach Michel Therrien encouraged him, praising the 25-year-old winger’s play, sometimes it’s hard to believe words when the numbers don’t follow.
But finally, in the waning seconds of a 3-3 game, one in which Tampa Bay tried valiantly to avoid an embarrassing sweep, Pacioretty got his first playoff goal. On a late power play, he did the little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. He made the right plays to keep the puck moving in the zone, so when Thomas Vanek’s shot deflected in the slot and remained loose in front of Lightning goalie Kristers Gudlevskis, Pacioretty was right there to punch the puck in with 43 seconds remaining. The Bell Centre erupted. The Canadiens finished off Tampa Bay with a 4-3 victory.
That’s a balayage pour les Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.
Here are some observations from Game 4:
• The Lightning's inability to get out of their own zone made it impossible for them to win this series. Their potent offense can't score if it can’t get the puck into the other team's end and sustain time there. Through two periods of this game, Tampa Bay took only 13 shots on goal. Trailing 3-1, the Bolts did come out in the third period with a good effort, ramping up their offensive pressure and getting some decent shifts in Montreal’s end. And they were rewarded, scoring two goals in about three minutes to tie the game.
• Much of the credit for Tampa Bay’s stymied offense, of course, goes to the Canadiens’ stalwart blue line. Defenseman Alexei Emelin had for five of Montreal's 23 blocked shots, and veterans Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov logged heavy minutes. But during the course of this quick series, Montreal showed a more complete defensive game. Every player committed to all 200 feet of the ice for all 60 minutes of every game, with forwards Gallagher and Lars Eller blocking shots and challenging the Lightning's forwards to earn every offensive zone entry. (Many times, the Bolts did not.) The Canadiens' five-man unit mentality will be crucial. They now wait to see who they’ll face next week — the Bruins or the Red Wings. Against either team, it will be the Habs' defense that gives them a shot. From the look of the first series, Montreal is in good shape.
• Lightning fans knew the situation was dire when their captain, the always cool and collected Steven Stamkos, showed signs of frustration. After he was called for hooking Emelin early in the second period, and believing that the Canadiens defenseman had gone down a little too easily, Stamkos threw a quick right to Emelin’s face. Emelin went down after that, too. Though the penalty led to a shorthanded goal for Tampa Bay that cut Montreal's lead to 2-1, it was not the kind of momentum-shifting rally call that the Lightning needed. The Canadiens’ Brendan Gallagher scored his third postseason goal just 70 seconds later.
• Speaking of Stamkos, it will be very interesting to see what comes out of the Tampa Bay camp about the star’s health. He was knocked hard in the head in Game 3, but returned to the ice. Even before that moment, though, there was speculation that Stamkos was playing through other injuries.
• Just after Gallagher’s second period goal, Lightning coach Jon Cooper pulled goalie Anders Lindback for the second time in the series. Coming into the postseason, everyone knew that the absence of starting goaltender Ben Bishop, out with a wrist injury, would be Tampa Bay’s biggest challenge. It turned out to be their fatal flaw. Lindback, at 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, may look a lot like the 6-7, 214-pound Bishop in net, but he didn’t have the composure or the same technical excellence to his game. Though he has a big body, Lindback left his net vulnerable to poor angles; he let in two goals on his far side on Tuesday night. • Blooming flowers, longer days, sniffly noses and Danny Briere — it’s springtime alright. It remains remarkable how even at age 36, Briere seems to make himself relevant every April. Even though his productivity waned to .36 points per game this season, the lowest rate since his rookie year, and his ice time has been slashed to less than 13 minutes per game, Briere and his playoff productivity make him a viable postseason threat. Leaving him unguarded and able to make a move into the slot for a centering pass would be unwise, which the Lightning certainly learned just 2:24 into the game on Tuesday night, when he scored the opening goal of Game 4.