The wait is almost over — and what’s a couple more days, anyway? Especially when, as Boston forward Hilary Knight points out: “This has needed to happen for decades.”
TAMPA BAY — Johnathan Kovacevic scored from 150 feet away, on one of the strangest sequences in the history of the National Hockey League, and he did it on the same night his teammates generated 14 shot attempts and eight shots on net from 15 feet or less without scoring.
Oh, the Montreal Canadiens still found the net three times in this game from further out, including on Kovacevic’s shot, which came when everyone in the building —except for him, goaltender Samuel Montembeault and at least one of the officials —thought the play was dead. But they had so many quality chances against the Tampa Bay Lightning that they should have scored at least twice as many goals as they did.
Meanwhile, Nikita Kucherov needed just one to pot the winner for the Lightning, and that was after he set a goal up for Calvin de Haan on the only other sequence in which he went unmarked, only reinforcing the obvious — that the Canadiens will begin to win with more regularity when they have more players who only need one or two plays to make the difference.
The Canadiens have some in Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, who each scored on this night. But they have none on Kucherov’s level.
The Russian’s pass to de Haan was his 35th assist of the season. The goal, which rubberstamped this 4-3 Lightning win, was his 26th.
“He’s one of the best in the league,” said Canadiens defenceman David Savard, who won the Stanley Cup with Kucherov and the Lightning in 2021. “He’s going to make you pay every time he’s got a chance. He’s a special player, and for most of the night, I think we did a great job of not giving him much. But he ended up getting a few at the end and it’s tough. Those players will find ways to get it into the back of the net.”
The Canadiens are doing everything they can to develop theirs, and to find others as they move through their rebuild.
But it takes time.
At least they’re not wasting theirs waiting around or sulking about it, hence a performance in Tampa they can still be proud of.
They outshot the Lightning 30-20, won 67 per cent of the faceoffs, killed all three penalties they took and held the Lightning to zero shots on all three after struggling massively in the department just a night prior in a loss to the Florida Panthers, and Savard was justified in saying, “We deserved better.”
File it under “Missed Opportunities.”
“I mean, I think that’s a big part of it,” Savard said. “I think the first two periods, the shots were on our side, and we spent a lot of time in their zone, and we were creating a lot and I think we had some good chances. The goalie made some awesome saves on the other side and kept them in the game and it’s a team that’s going to come back and haunt you when you can’t score those. It’s a team that just needs one chance and they’re back into it. As soon as they get the momentum, they’re hard to stop.”
Somehow, Kovacevic’s goal from in front of his own net (after Jonas Johansson left Tampa’s and went for a skate thinking the officials had deciphered Montembeault had frozen the puck and blown the whistle) got the Lightning going.
Brayden Point scored a beautiful goal on an odd-man rush, and then Austin Watson scored a hideous one that Lightning coach Jon Cooper later referred to as “Karma.”
Montembeault didn’t see it that way.
“I gave up a bad goal at the end of the second, and it cost us the win,” he said. “I find that unfortunate. The puck was bouncing. When I made my read, I saw a forward for the Lightning going for the rebound. I didn’t want to block it and give up a rebound in the slot; I was hoping to hit the puck with my stick or kick it out with my pad, but it bounced over me.”
The Canadiens got one unbelievable bounce and shouldn’t have needed many more at the other end of the ice to have won this game.
But that’s how it goes for the 27th-ranked team in scoring. Especially against a team in the upper echelon on offence.
“They have a lot of talent,” said Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis. “You have to try not to give them too much, and for a large majority of the game, that’s what we did. Hard to not get the result. We dominated a large part of that game, and it’s encouraging. Very proud of how we played tonight as a team, and for sure it’s demoralizing when you don’t get the result. But we’ll come back to work to go get the results we want to get.”