Finally Montreal just ran out of steam and out of time. They found a stronger, faster opponent, one which acquired a taste for the playoffs last year and improved their game, improvements that have them the hot club of 2004. Tampa once again made quick work of an opponent, taking the Habs out in four straight games, defeating them Thursday 3-1 at the Bell centre, making believers of those who may have doubted their success thus far.
Dan Boyle and Brad Richards did all the damage in the second period as the Bolts came back after an early first period Montreal goal by Nicklas Sundstrom. Three back to back penalties by Montreal in the second started off the Tampa scoring outburst, as Boyle scored on the Power Play and Richards scored shortly after Montreal had killed off another short handed situation. As the teams left the ice in the second, Montreal was tied in shots but trailing on the scoreboard and once again it was Nikolai Khabibulan who could take credit for the Montreal frustrations.
Both goaltenders continued their stellar play and despite the four to none sweep, Montreal had their chances. The Habs out shot the Bolts 28-24 tonight and coming oh so close to winning game three two nights ago. When they do the post season wrap on their efforts the Habs can look back to the last minute of game three as the turning point. The slight lapse in intensity in that last minute allowed Tampa to recover the momentum, tying the game and going on to win it in OT. As they headed into game four Tampa knew they had Montreal on the ropes and as the game progressed the Tampa speed paid off, as they took the play to Montreal in the second, finishing them off in the third with an empty net goal by Fredrik Modin as time dwindled down.
Tampa can now rest their sore bodies and take care of the aches and pains as the Flyers and Leafs continue their battle, the winner of that series will meet the Bolts in the Eastern Conference final. The Lightning must be feeling pretty secure at the moment, offensively they’ve finally got their big guns moving and even when they make a defensive lapse Khabibulan is in the net and Khabibulan is making this team look very good right now. The only question for Tampa is how long a rest is good for them, would they rather have Toronto and Philly beat each other up over 7 games, or finish things off quickly and set up the next round. Regardless, with the young legs available to the John Tortorella, they should be fresh and ready to continue their march next week.
For Montreal, a huge series against a traditional rival may have been all they could hope for this year. Claude Julien’s squad made a game effort of it in games three and four, but the total domination of the Habs in the first two games pretty well told the story of this series. Saku Koivu spoke for all his team mates when he expressed disappointment at the way the playoff run ended, but even in his disappointment he must know that his team is poised to take the next step. Montreal can continue to build for the future, having taken a core group of players on to the second round. Look for Bob Gainey to start to tinker with his line up now, finding the right combinations to put the Habs further into the playoffs next time around.
For now Canada loses another participant in the chase for Stanley, like Vancouver and Ottawa before them, Montreal will have to limit their participation in the playoffs to La Soiree du Hockey or Hockey Night in Canada. The only difference between the three, Vancouver and Ottawa were terribly disappointing finishes, Montreal’s unexpected run of comeback success, ending in not so much as disappointment but more of a promise of better things to come.