MONTREAL – It’s been six years and a day since the Habs last won a playoff round at home. The moment had been a long time coming.
Unwittingly, the Canadiens may have started a new playoff tradition by inviting Quebec diva Ginette Reno to perform the national anthem for a second straight home game. After spurring Rene Bourque to a goal 11 seconds into Game Three, Madame Reno’s magic touch manifested itself once again in Game Four. Just before leaving the ice on Tuesday night, she made a special point of saluting fellow Quebecker Daniel Briere. Two minutes into the first period, the same Briere took a feed from Dale Weise in the high slot and opened the scoring with a wrister over the glove of Anders Lindback.
“Weise made a great play to beat the defender to the puck and get it over to me. These are the plays which make the difference in the playoffs,” acknowledged Briere, who notched his second point of the series on the play. Of course, his first came on the monumental behind-the-net play which led to Weise’s overtime winner in Game One.
With a jam-packed Bell Centre absolutely rocking, Lars Eller added fuel to the fire by slapping the puck past Lindback on a two-on-one. Once again, the play was initiated by the speed and tenacity of a right winger, this time Brian Gionta. The Habs’ captain stripped the puck from a Tampa defender before finding Eller streaking down the left wing. A confident-looking swing from the Dane later, the score was two-love for Montreal.
“We executed our game plan really well. We always try our best, no matter if it’s the regular season or the playoffs, but for some reason things just clicked in the last four games,” offered the centerman, who struggled offensively for most of the season but now pace the Habs’ offense in the postseason with five points. The Rene Bourque-Lars Eller-Brian Gionta line, formed late in the season, has been the Canadiens’ most prolific unit at five-on-five, leading the team with 12 combined points so far.
Though the Canadiens looked well on their way to the second round at that moment, having trailed all of three minutes in the entire series, Jon Cooper’s team managed to put one final scare into the Bell Centre crowd. Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman lit the lamp in quick succession in the third period to knot the game at three. Despite leading the shot count and dominating puck possession since puck drop, the Habs were a shot away from having to make the trip all the way to Florida to close out the series. Having already coached the Canadiens to two playoff berths 11 years apart, Michel Therrien made the veteran move of calling a timeout in order to settle down his troops.
“We played against a team which had a tremendous season, a team which battled hard and that’s going in the right direction,” Therrien noted. “I liked how our team reacted to the tying goal. There was no panic on the bench, and the leadership that we have really manifested itself later in the game.”
Throughout the run-and-gun affair, notably absent on the scoresheet was the name of Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos. Tomas Plekanec, Brandon Prust and Brendan Gallagher limited Tampa’s captain to no points and a paltry two shots on net on Tuesday night with comprehensive coverage. With the opponent’s top line neutralized by the home team’s de factor second line, the Habs were finally able put the nail in Tampa’s coffin with a joint effort from their fourth and first units.
“You need the contribution of each line to have success in the playoffs,” stated Therrien. With three minutes left in regulation, he sent his fourth line of Briere, Weise and rookie Michael Bournival onto the ice. Moments later, Bournival becomes entangled with Lightning youngster Cedric Paquette, who was whistled for a foul on the 21 year-old. All this set the stage for Max Pacioretty to score the series-winning goal on the man advantage. Despite leading the team in goals with 39 in the regular season, Pacioretty had been searching for confidence in the playoffs, having produced only one assist in three games and missing a quantity of scoring chances. In Game Four, however, he could count on the calming presence of his father Raymond at the Bell Centre. Under the elder Pacioretty’s watchful eye, number 67 jammed home a rebound to put him team up for good with 43 seconds left in the third period.
“He’s always so supportive, especially when I’m slumping. Three games into the playoffs and I hadn’t scored, even though I was expected to, that was difficult to deal with,” revealed Pacioretty after the game. “I had no confidence at that time because I was missing breakaways; missing open nets. He just said: ‘you scored 39 goals this year, just trust yourself.’”
All in all, the Canadiens ended their first-round playoff series in the same way they started it: with a narrow victory in which every line on the team had done its part. Head coach Michel Therrien did confess to being surprised with the straightforwardness of the sweep, but added that his guys were just getting going.
“We’ve won the series, but we haven’t accomplished all we wanted yet,” he announced.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com
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