Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Habs enjoy first playoff series sweep since 1993

Rene Bourque (17), Daniel Briere (48) and P.K. Subban (76) leap off the bench to celebrate Montreal's series-clinching win. (Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)
Rene Bourque (17), Daniel Briere (48) and P.K. Subban (76) leap off the bench to celebrate Montreal's series-clinching win. (Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)
That loveable Latvian, Kristers Gudlevskis, almost spoiled the party again.
The 21-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning goalkeeper, however, came up a whisker short, just like he did when he gave Canada that massive scare in the Olympic quarter-finals in Sochi with a 55-save performance in Canada's 2-1 win.
The Montreal Canadiens were out to sweep the Lightning at the Bell Centre on Tuesday and were well on their way until they blew a two-goal lead early in the third period, when the Lightning scored goals 3:02 apart.
 Then, Habs sniper Max Pacioretty became the only one to beat Gudlevskis with a late-game power-play goal for a 4-3 victory after blowing a two-goal lead to start the final 20 minutes. You had to feel for Tampa Bay rookie Cedric Paquette on the tripping penalty because referees Chris Lee and Francois St. Laurent had let the two teams play for most of the game until that call.
The Canadiens took advantage and now will await the winner of the Boston-Detroit first-round series that the Bruins lead 2-1 after a 3-0 road victory on Tuesday.
Gudlevskis and the Lightning head home wondering what might have been had No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop not suffered a dislocated elbow in the last week of the season and had their captain Steven Stamkos been 100 per cent healthy. Stamkos admitted afterwards that he didn't have full strength in his leg since he returned from a broken right tibia suffered last November, which kept him out of the Olympics and absent for 45 games.


Condensed Game for Lightning vs Canadiens

Condensed Game for Lightning vs Canadiens

The Lightning had a dozen players make their Stanley Cup playoff debuts at some point in this first-round series, including Gudlevskis.
He played in relief in Game 2 and he entered Game 4 after Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher beat Tampa Bay starter Anders Lindback to put the Canadiens ahead 3-1 with just under six minutes remaining in the second period. Gudlevskis made stop after stop after stop. Sixteen in a row as a matter of fact.
But then, Pacioretty was Maxie on the spot to bang in a loose puck with 42.6 ticks left in the third period for his first career goal in his eighth Stanley Cup playoff game. It was quite a relief for the American sniper, who checked in for a career-high 39 goals during the regular season.
He scored the game-winner with his tearful dad, Raymond, among the jubilant crowd of 21,273.
"I'm glad he was here," Pacioretty said. "He hasn't been here much. This was only the second time this year and I had a good game last time, too.
"I was pushing hard. I had some chances. I'm glad to finally get one."
This was the Canadiens' 22nd playoff series sweep in franchise history, more than any other team in North American team sports, but first since they ousted the Buffalo Sabres in four games in the second round in 1993. Eight wins later, Montreal celebrated its 24th Stanley Cup championship, the last time a Canadian-based NHL team won the title.
Even though the Canadiens swept the Lightning, three wins were by one goal. The series opener was extended to overtime. But the Habs trailed for only three minutes and 34 seconds, all in the series opener last week.
There should be plenty of credit to spread around for the Canadiens, beginning with the strong play of goalie Carey Price and defenceman P.K. Subban. Price won his first NHL playoff series since 2008, while Subban had five assists in four games.
As a team, the Canadiens took away the Lightning's speed with a strong forecheck and solid positional play in the neutral zone. The six-player defence core also enjoyed an efficient series making it difficult for the skilled Lightning with hard one-on-one battles along the boards and around the Montreal goal.
Up front, the Canadiens received scoring from all four lines.
Montreal head coach Michel Therrien rewarded his players with two full days off. They likely won't be back in action for at least a week and that will allow a couple of forwards, Travis Moen and Alex Galchenyuk, to further heal from late-season injuries.

In the meantime, the Canadiens will sit and wait to find out their second-round opponent, hoping the Detroit-Boston series extends to the limit.

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