The Tampa Bay Lightning proved again that it’s not quite ready to give up on the season just yet, even with the odds seemingly stacked against them.
Despite injuries and illness, Steven Stamkos still managed to score his league-leading 44th goal of the season and Mathieu Garon made 23 saves as the Lightning grinded out a 2-1 victory over the slumping Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night.
Tampa Bay, playing with six call-ups from the team’s top AHL affiliate in Norfolk, won its second straight game to move within five points of the division-rival Capitals for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
“We needed to do the best that we possibly could,” head coach Guy Boucher said. “And I think we got the best out of our guys tonight.”
Montreal, meanwhile, has now lost five in a row, being outscored 16-5 in that span. The Canadiens sit in last place in the Eastern Conference with 58 points.
Adam Hall had the other goal for the Lightning, and Teddy Purcell added an assist for Tampa Bay, winners in each of its past four at home.
Stamkos opened the scoring after taking a pass from Purcell and dekeing goaltender Carey Price with a long reach to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead at 8:42 of the first period.
Purcell, who was a game-time decision after suffering flu-like symptoms earlier in the day, now has 10 assists and 14 points over a career-high seven-game point streak.
Price finished the game by stopping 20 of 22 shots on the night.
David Desharnais had the lone goal for the Canadiens and tied it with 3:58 to go in the first, wristing one from the slot past Garon.
Hall then put the Lightning back up in front to start the second period, snapping a 1-1 tie as he chipped in a nifty saucer pass from Ryan Malone just 28 seconds in. The goal broke a 45-game scoring drought for Hall, whose last goal came during the team’s season-opener on Oct. 7 at Carolina.
“You never know when it’s going to come,” Hall said. “You try to be as consistent as possible and put it in a certain way. Every day, we’re working on habit and whether the points show it or not, you always find some way.”
With Montreal threatening, Garon made what proved to be the game-winning goal stand up, as he came up with a number of tremendous saves to preserve the one-goal lead.
He stopped a drive from Blake Geoffrion at the right circle and also turned back Erik Cole from in-close as the Lightning killed off a five-minute Canadiens power play.
“He was spectacular,” Hall added of his goaltender. “We’ve won a lot of games because of him. He made some huge saves for us on the penalty kills, breakaways and other chances. It was just a great, great game for him.”
Malone was given an instigator penalty, a five-minute fighting major and a game misconduct at 8:16 of the second after a scrum near the Canadiens’ bench. Montreal's Brad Staubitz got two minutes for interference from the bench and a 10-minute misconduct on the play, which came 20 seconds after Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin finished serving an interference penalty for making contact with Malone after the play.
The Canadiens, who entered with the NHL's second-worst power play, failed to score on the ensuing five-minute man advantage.
“[Lightning assistant coach] Dan Lacroix did a terrific job preparing them tonight on the penalty kill,” Boucher added. “The penalty kill is all about paying the price and our guys definitely did that tonight.”
Staubitz, claimed on waivers Monday from Minnesota, also got into a third-period scrap with Lightning call-up Pierre-Cedric Labrie and finished his first game as a Hab with 17 minutes in penalties.
The win, though, was critical for Tampa Bay, who was without Nate Thompson and Brendan Mikkelson due to the flu, and also without Victor Hedman, Ryan Shannon and Vincent Lecavalier, all out due to injuries.
“I think it speaks to how much character we have in this room,” Hall said. “Whether or not we’ve been able to show it all year, we’ve got the pieces in here and we believe in each other, so I think this was another great game to show that.”