MONTREAL — Out in a flash.
Tampa Bay’s first foray in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three years streaked by like a bolt of lightning across the spring-time sky.
Montreal completed a first-round sweep of the Lightning with a 4-3 victory in Game 4 in front of a sellout crowd of 21,273 at Bell Centre. The series sweep for the Canadiens is the first time Montreal has swept a series since 1993, while the Lightning were swept in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.
After winning three of the four regular season meetings between the teams without allowing more than a goal in any of the four, Tampa Bay dropped all four games in the playoff series to the Canadiens, allowing at least three goals in all four games.
Max Pacioretty’s power play goal on the rebound with 42.6 seconds left after Cedric Paquette was called for tripping with 2:11 left in regulation time ended Tampa Bay’s season.
Ondrej Palat scored a shorthanded goal while Victor Hedman and Tyler Johnson each scored in the third to erase a two-goal deficit and the game looked headed to overtime until the late power play chance for Montreal.
One game after a controversial call cost Tampa Bay a go-ahead goal, the late penalty against Paquette put officiating back into the spotlight as the offensive-zone call on Paquette was just the third penalty call of the game while plenty of calls were let go in the third period.
“I thought the refs did a great job of putting the whistles away in the third and then a penalty like that, 200-feet from our net that doesn’t result in a scoring chance,’’ Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “Was it a trip? Yeah, probably, but the way things were going, you probably don’t expect that to be called. It’s tough, you learn from those situations, you never know what is going to be called, but it is a tough way to lose a game.’’
With the mad advantage, Pacioretty was in front of the net and was able to get two whacks at a rebound of Thomas Vanek’s shot and push the puck through the legs of Kristers Gudlevskis, who stopped 16-of-17 shots he faced in relief of Anders Lindback.
“It was the old, refs-let-them-play, they let the teams decide it, and it was really unfortunate that it has to come down to a call like that with two minutes left,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But ultimately you have to kill them off, you can’t hang your head and you have to kill it off, and we didn’t.’’
The Lightning didn’t give up, either, fighting to keep their season alive. Even after falling down 2-0 in the first period on goals by Daniel Briere at 2:24 and another by Lars Eller at 15:21, Tampa Bay cut the deficit to a goal on Palat’s second goal of the season, taking advantage of a turnover by Alexei Emelin with Montreal on the power play and putting a wraparound past Carey Price at 4:32. But Brendan Gallagher would regain the two-goal advantage for the Canadiens 70 seconds later beating Lindback short side with a shot from the right circle that forced Cooper to make a goaltending switch.
In the third, Tampa Bay showed the desperation and urgency that seemed to be missing for good portions of the series and managed to pull even in the game on Hedman’s bank shot from behind the net at 3:29 of the third period and on Johnson’s goal resulting from a pass J.T. Brown that glanced off the stick of P.K. Subban at 6:31.
“We showed what we were about in that third period, it’s just too bad we didn’t have that for more of the series,’’ right wing Ryan Callahan said. “That was the best hockey that we played of the series was in that third period.’’
But as had been the case through most of the short-lived series, the Lightning seemed to be a step behind the Canadiens.
“We have a lot of character in this locker room and I think we proved that throughout the season,’’ Johnson said. “It’s just tough going out this way.’’