TAMPA —- The talk surrounding Thursday’s game was the return of Jonathan Drouin, who had the lion’s share of the Lightning’s highlight-reel goals the past few seasons.
But what people will likely remember from the Lightning’s 3-1 win over the Canadiens is arguably Tampa Bay’s best goal of the year, another dazzling display of chemistry between Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. The tying goal, with 12 seconds left in the second period, sparked a flurry of three goals in six minutes that continued into the third period.
"That’s the dagger in our heart," Drouin said. "That’s what those players can do to you."
With the Lightning down 1-0 and Canadiens goalie Carey Price looking unbeatable, the Lightning’s top line flew off the bench for one final shift in the second. Kucherov beat defenseman Karl Alzner to the puck to negate an icing and took a quick peek back before laying a no-look backhand pass to a streaking Stamkos, who came flying off the bench. Stamkos said that because of his chemistry with Kucherov, he didn’t need to call for the puck.
"Didn’t say a word," Stamkos said. "I knew that he knew that he knew I was there."
The Lightning (27-7-2) could have made the game ugly early. It outshot Montreal 11-1 in the first eight minutes. But Price showed why he’s arguably the best in the world, making several stellar stops on point-blank shots by Brayden Point and Kucherov.
Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was good, too, picking up his career-high 24th win, one more than last season. His biggest save came on a chance by Paul Byron on a first-period power play, keeping it 0-0. The Canadiens’ only goal on 32 shots came on a fluky bounce, a Vasilevskiy initial save banking in off Brendan Gallagher.
Drouin, in his first game in Tampa since being traded by the Lightning to the Canadiens last summer, had a quiet night, including the muted reaction from Lightning fans (some signs and jerseys, a mix of cheers and smattering of boos). Drouin was a nonfactor on the ice: three shots, minus-1 in 16:55. It has been that kind of year for Drouin, in the first of a six-year, $33 million deal he signed after being traded. His five goals and 13 assists are both fewer than Lightning rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, for whom he was traded.
Sergachev, for his part, had another strong performance (without injured partner Anton Stralman, who missed his first game of the season.)
The first of Stamkos’ two goals helped swing the game.
Victor Hedman started it off with an alert play to get the puck up the ice from the Lightning defensive zone, a stretch pass down the left side.
"You knew there was not much time left in the period, so I tried to get it up quick," Hedman said. "It wasn’t a Picasso from me, but Kucherov finished it off."
Kucherov had a great hustle play to beat Alzner and could feel Stamkos was coming off the bench.
" ‘Kuch’ is pretty aware," coach Jon Cooper said. "He had some time to look and see who’s coming. ‘Stammer’ went hard to the net; that’s where you score goals. Kucherov just laid it in there, and Stamkos one-touched it. An awareness play, that’s what it was."
Stamkos knew he had to get the shot off quickly if he wanted to beat Price, hence the one-touch redirect that soared over Price’s left shoulder.
"It looked like it surprised him a little bit," Stamkos said.
But Stamkos wasn’t surprised Kucherov found him.
"That’s the thing with Kuch and the chemistry we developed. We don’t need to draw attention to ourselves by yelling on the ice," Stamkos said. "We know where we are, and great play by him."
First Period—None. Penalties—Plekanec, MTL, (holding), 4:58; Killorn, TB, (tripping), 12:54; Alzner, MTL, (cross checking), 20:00.
Second Period—1, Montreal, Gallagher 15 (Morrow, Hudon), 3:40 (pp). 2, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 14 (Hedman, Kucherov), 19:48. Penalties—Sustr, TB, (high sticking), 2:27; Benn, MTL, (delay of game), 7:03; Galchenyuk, MTL, (interference), 9:45.
Third Period—3, Tampa Bay, Point 15 (Palat, Johnson), 0:30. 4, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 15 (Palat, Namestnikov), 4:45 (pp). Penalties—Deslauriers, MTL, (holding), 3:01; Pacioretty, MTL, (hooking), 4:08; Dotchin, TB, (roughing), 11:45; Danault, MTL, (roughing), 11:45; Point, TB, (tripping), 13:05. Shots on Goal—Montreal 13-7-12—32. Tampa Bay 14-10-10—34. Power-play opportunities—Montreal 1 of 3; Tampa Bay 1 of 6. Goalies—Montreal, Price 11-12-2 (34 shots-31 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 24-5-1 (32-31).