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Lightning will have to be better in front of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy

Montreal Canadiens left wing Max Pacioretty (67) is stopped by Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy during the first period of Thursday's game in Montreal. [Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP]
Montreal Canadiens left wing Max Pacioretty (67) is stopped by Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy during the first period of Thursday's game in Montreal. [Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP]
Published Jan. 5, 2018

OTTAWA — What a game.

As a fan of either the Lightning or Canadiens, you had to enjoy the thrilling showdown Thursday at the Bell Centre. The highlight-reel, how-did-they-do-that saves brought the crowd to its feet. The Canadiens' Carey Price made one more key stop than Andrei Vasilevskiy in a 2-1 Tampa Bay shootout loss.

"They both had to sparkle," coach Jon Cooper said. "And they both did."

That's the key phrase. They had to.

(RELATED: Lightning falls to Canadiens in shootout)

That's the flipside of the dazzling goalie duel: the Lightning left Montreal with a point, but was not happy with how it got it. It gave up too many chances — coach Jon Cooper estimating more than 20 — requiring Vasilevskiy to bail them out.

"When we gave up the 3-on-1 in the first 20 seconds in the game, and then we turned the puck over right after that, it just kind of showed the mindset in how this was going to go," Cooper said. "I can't be too hard on our guys. They've played outstanding defense for a long period of time. We just didn't (Thursday).

"I don't know what our mental thought was coming into this game, but it clearly was not playing the right way. If it wasn't for Vasy, who knows if it even goes to overtime?"

(RELATED: Another trade milestone for Sergachev)

There's a reason why teammates label Vasilevskiy as the Lightning's best player.

But while Vasilevskiy has been spectacular — leading the league in goals against average and save percentage — the Lightning has, for the most part, defended well in front of him.

The Lightning is eighth in the league in 5-on-5 scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes (26.95), and fifth in high-danger chances allowed (9.66), per naturalstattrick.com. Tampa Bay ranked 13th and 11th in those categories, respectively, last season.

"The guys are committed," Cooper said. "That's the thing. The players are so dynamic and they're so gifted, offensively, you can't snuff that out of them. You've got to let them breathe and play that way. But put them in a structure that can translate to wins. When they're winning, there is a buy-in."

(RELATED: Sergachev and the loss of a second-round pick.)

The fact the Lightning has a legitimate shutdown line in Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson has offered a big boost, often matching up with other team's top lines. That will loom large come playoff time.

The blueline has improved with the emergence of rookie Mikhail Sergachev, plus veteran Dan Girardi in the third pair.

"They're a veteran team that knows how to play," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "They play well and they can really score, but they can defend as well."

Kings coach John Stevens pointed out something similar after his team got beat by the Lightning in November.

"I think it's a little underestimated how physical they are on the puck and how well they check," Stevens said. "There's a reason they are where they are. I don't see a lot of holes in their game."

This doesn't mean the Lightning is the trap-heavy Devils of the mid-90s. Tampa Bay still loves the uptempo game, and is at its best when it's using its speed and skill.

That will sometimes lead to turnovers and odd-man rushes, like the four given up in the first five minutes in Thursday's game.

In the last three games, Vasielvskiy has made some big-time, first-period saves that have helped keep it 0-0 until Tampa Bay found its game.

"Sometimes I'm helping them," Vasilevskiy said. "Sometimes they're helping me."

But in the playoffs, all it takes is one of those to go in to be a game-changer. That's why the Lightning was not happy with Thursday's sloppiness It could be due to lack of practices; due to schedule and travel quirks, the team last practiced Dec. 27, before this five-game road trip.

Either way, Tampa Bay will have to be better.

Said Tyler Johnson: "We can't give up what we gave up (Thursday) and expect to win many games."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith.