MONTREAL — Coach Jon Cooper said a "budding rivalry" has been brewing with the Lightning and Canadiens, a product of battling in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
Though that took a hiatus last season, with Montreal missing the playoffs, it looks like another chapter in the rivalry could be added this spring. If Thursday's game, a 3-1 Lightning loss at the Bell Centre, is any indication, these teams are evenly matched and will likely battle for the top spots in the Atlantic Division.
"That's the way it seems like," wing Alex Killorn said. "I know it's early in the season to say that, but they're a team that plays similar to us, have got some great players. They kind of changed that team over the summer. But we know what we're capable of. It's the first of four (regular-season) meetings, and it'll be exciting."
For a late October game, there was a noticeable buzz around town about this showdown. Part of it was that Montreal (7-0-1), coming off a win over the Islanders the night before, was undefeated in regulation, and it stayed that way to move five points ahead of the Lightning (5-2-0) in the division. The teams were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in nhl.com's power rankings.
Tampa Bay not only lost the game, it lost star wing Nikita Kucherov, who left after the first period with an undisclosed injury. Coach Jon Cooper didn't know how long Kucherov would be out but hoped it wouldn't be too long. The issue wasn't concussion-related, he said.
"(Kucherov is) one of our best players, and he's dynamic out there," Killorn said. "Especially in a game like this, when you're down, he's a guy you look to to score."
There wasn't much room to maneuver in the very tight-checking game. It took 12 minutes for the Lightning to get its first shot on goal, partly a product of Tampa Bay playing "too simple," Killorn said.
Killorn gave the Lightning the lead late in the second, picking up his team-leading sixth goal. He deflected a brilliant slap pass from the point by defenseman Victor Hedman.
"(Killorn has) been hot lately, so I tried to put it on his stick," Hedman said. "He did the rest."
The Canadiens battled back with three third-period goals. Alex Galchenyuk tied it on a power-play goal six minutes in, a one-timer from the right circle.
Midway through the third, Max Pacioretty floated a wrist shot through traffic, and a significant screen by Andrew Shaw, to beat goalie Ben Bishop, who had another stellar duel with the Canadiens' Carey Price. Montreal was 1-for-3 with the man advantage, the Lightning 0-for-3.
"Their power play came through, ours didn't," Hedman said. "That was the difference in the game."
Montreal added an empty-netter to seal the win.
Bishop (23 saves) and Price (30) lived up to their Vezina Trophy-caliber statuses. And with three more meetings between the teams, the next Dec. 28 in Tampa, there will likely be more of the same.
"We wanted to make this a tight game," Hedman said. "And it was."
First Period—None. Penalties—Namestnikov, TB, (hooking), 2:23.
Second Period—1, Tampa Bay, Killorn 6 (Stralman, Hedman), 16:08. Penalties—Beaulieu, MTL, Major (fighting), 2:56; Paquette, TB, Major (fighting), 2:56; Johnson, TB, (tripping), 5:32; Lehkonen, MTL, (holding), 19:37.
Third Period—2, Montreal, Galchenyuk 2 (Petry, Markov), 6:12 (pp). 3, Montreal, Pacioretty 2 (Pateryn, Shaw), 10:23. 4, Montreal, Mitchell 4, 19:16. Penalties—Markov, MTL, (delay of game), 1:26; Nesterov, TB, (roughing), 4:58; Shaw, MTL, (holding), 19:26. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 4-13-14—31. Montreal 9-8-9—26. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 3; Montreal 1 of 3. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Bishop 3-2-0 (25 shots-23 saves). Montreal, Price 4-0-0 (31-30). A—21,288 (21,273). T—2:32.