MONTREAL — It looked like it would be easy when Rene Bourque scored for the Montreal Canadiens only 11 seconds into the game.
But the Canadiens needed a third-period goal from Tomas Plekanec and some fine saves from Carey Price to down the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 on Sunday night and take a choke hold on their NHL Eastern Conference playoff series.
The victory gave Montreal a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven set with a chance to sweep the Bolts on home ice in Game 4 on Tuesday night.
“We’ve seen many scenarios in the playoffs and we have to have the same approach for the next game as we had for the last three,” said Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban, who had a pair of assists in a standout performance. “They’re a good team.
“They had a lot of opportunities to score. They fought their way back into the game. They put pucks on the net and came hard to the end. We know they’ll fight until the final buzzer, so we have to be ready next game.”
Brendan Gallagher also scored for Montreal while Ondrej Palat, back after missing a game with an injury, and defenceman Matthew Carle replied for Tampa Bay.
Montreal outshot the Lightning 31-29, but there were nervy moments and a disputed, disallowed goal as the visitors pushed back in the second and third frames.
“We were determined, we played with passion, I thought we responded unreal,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. “It’s tough to walk into that locker-room and look those guys in the eye.
“Clearly, that was the best game we’ve played in this series. I though they deserved a better fate. Ultimately, it’s a loss and that’s what hurts the most.”
The Canadiens have a chance to avenge their only previous playoff meeting with the Lightning, who swept them in 2004 before going on to win the Stanley Cup.
After winning the first two games in Tampa, Fla., the Canadiens returned to a rousing welcome from their fans and a spectacular pre-game show. The crowd of 21,273 was still roaring after joining old-time Quebec pop singer Ginette Reno in the Canadian anthem when Subban bounced a pass up the middle of the ice and Bourque collected it behind the Lightning defence.
The unexpected scoring hero put his third of the series past Anders Lindback at the 11-second mark — and the noise got even louder.
“I didn’t really know who (Reno) was, but by the reaction I knew it was somebody popular,” said Bourque. “She did a great job getting the fans fired up.
“We didn’t plan it at all. It was a lucky bounce.”
Lindback made up for it with some strong saves as the Lightning cancelled the Canadiens’ early emotion by killing off a four-minute high-sticking call on rearguard Mike Barberio.
Palat tied it 8:39 into the second frame as he buried the ricochet of a Steven Stamkos shot off Mike Weaver’s skate on the Bolts’ first power play.
Then the Lightning poured it on, and looked like they had the go-ahead goal, only to see Subban bat a flying puck out of the air behind Price. Seconds later, Ryan Callahan put the puck in at 15:38 only to see it waived off due to what was ruled as incidental contact on Price by Alex Killorn.
The Bolts felt the goal was good.
“I was (angry) then and I’m (angry) now,” said Cooper. “That’s just my opinion. I’ll let the court of public opinion take care of the rest.”
Of course, the Canadiens thought the officials got the call right.
“It was a pass across, it got deflected in the air,” said Price. “Subban batted it out of the air and it wound up kind of a scramble.
“I tried to come back across the net and tripped over their guy, who was right in the middle of the crease. At that point, I didn’t know what was going on.”
Less than three minutes later, the teams were each down a man when Subban picked up the puck, skated through the defence and around the net to set up Gallagher for his second goal of the series at 18:10.
“I just tried to create space,” said Subban, who had a team-high 28:03 of ice time. “I took a penalty earlier in the period and I felt good when I came back on the ice and the guys had killed it off.
“Larry (Lars Eller) made a great play behind the net to move it to open ice. I tried to draw the forechecker to me and see what happened. I went behind the net. Gally did a great job to get himself open. It makes it easy for me to get it to him.”
Plekanec scored what would be the game-winner when he threaded a shot through from the right circle 5:43 into the third period.
But Carle made it close with a point shot that looked to deflect off a body in front at 11:36.
The Canadiens held off a late charge to put the win away.
The lightning got a scare at 16:09 of the second when Stamkos fell after jostling with Brandon Prust and got hit in the head by Alexei Emelin’s knee. But the Bolts’ scoring star was able to return for the third period and picked up his second assist of the night on Carle’s goal.
Cooper made four lineup changes, bringing in forwards Palat, Tom Pyatt and B.J. Crombeen and defenceman Barberio and scratching Sami Salo, Michael Kostka, Richard Panik and Nikita Kucherov. Salo reportedly has an upper body injury.
Montreal made no changes.