Those who expected the Lightning defense to struggle without star rookie defenseman Victor Hedman would have been disappointed Saturday night, as Tampa Bay wrapped up its four-game road trip with a win at the Bell Centre with a 3-1 score over the Canadiens.
As Montreal dominated the Bolts’ offensive zone to open the contest, the absence of Hedman caused an immediate sense of urgency for several other Lightning defensemen to step up and guard the blue line. Lukas Krajicek and Andrej Meszaros did just that, as the Canadiens fired numerous shots on goal in succession, but couldn’t find the back of the net as goaltender Antero Niittymaki continued his recent trend of making one spectacular save after another.
Montreal’s Carey Price, Niittymaki’s opposing counterpart between the pipes, was not quite as fortunate.
Just under ten minutes in the opening stanza, Ryan Malone crashed the net following a Martin St. Louis backhand that hit the Montreal net-minder’s left pad. After Malone wrangled the loose puck from the top of the crease and fired a shot on net, Price disallowed the Lightning right wing’s first effort, but Malone stayed in the play and went top-shelf on his own rebound chance to put the Lightning up 1-0. Malone’s tally marked the sixth time in the Lightning’s last eight games that Tampa Bay has scored the game’s opening goal.
Malone continued to create plays later in the period just before the horn sounded. In the middle of a transition in the neutral zone, Malone received a pass from Vincent Lecavalier before putting the puck on net with a wrist shot from the left circle. Although Price was able to slow the wobbling puck, he could not cover it up, as Alex Tanguay, who was trailing the play and rushed the goal mouth, beat him to the rebound to score his second goal in as many games.
In the second period, Montreal came close to getting on the board with a solid scoring chance, but Niittymaki maintained his strong presence in net and made an incredible split save across the crease with the right pad to deny Mike Cammalleri who was streaking down the left flank. The Canadiens would redeem themselves several minutes later on the powerplay however, as Brian Gionta batted a puck out of mid-air that bounced off the chest of Niittymaki into the mesh, cutting the deficit to one and ending Montreal’s 0-12 powerplay slump. As the middle frame wound down, Niittymaki held his ground, even in the clutch, stopping several difficult shots. At the other end, Alex Tanguay hit the post and was denied his second goal of the evening, but James Wright followed up and knocked the puck in the net as it was sitting motionless along the goal line to put the Bolts back up by a pair entering the final session.
The Lightning almost extended their lead within five minutes of the third period, but a slapshot one-timer from the right circle by Jeff Halpern hit the cross bar and went the other way. Niittymaki continued to make brilliant saves down the back stretch of the final frame, preserving the lead and also providing the Lightning with their second win on the four-game road trip. The Lightning goaltender finished with 36 saves on 37 shots and was honored as the game’s first star for the second time in the Lightning’s last three games.
“The first half of the game we were really good. It was one of the better starts we’ve had this year. Obviously on the road, and in this building, we knew they [Montreal] would get some chances. But I’ve been feeling good, I worked hard all summer, and it’s paying off,” said Niittymaki, who has played in four games in the last six nights.
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