Post-Christmas struggle continues for Canadiens with a 4-3 loss in Tampa

The Lightning are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games against Habs, who are watching slim playoff hopes fade away after third straight road loss.

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The Canadiens post-Christmas road-trip woes continue.

The Lightning beat the Canadiens 4-3 Sunday night in Tampa. It was the third straight loss for the Canadiens on this four-game road trip. Over the last three seasons, they have an overall record of 1-12-4 on post-Christmas road trips.

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These road trips are where the Canadiens’ early playoff hopes go to die — and it certainly looks like they will miss the playoffs for a third straight season as their record dropped to 15-16-4, which ranks 13th in the Eastern Conference and 25th in the overall NHL standings.

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The Lightning improved to 18-15-5 after getting goals from Brayden Point, Austin Watson, Calvin de Haan and Nikita Kucherov. Cole Caufield, Johnathan Kovacevic and Nick Suzuki scored for the Canadiens, who blew a 2-0 second-period lead.

The Canadiens, with Samuel Montembeault in goal, outshot the Lightning 30-20. Montembeault made 16 saves as his record fell to 7-5-3 with a 2.94 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage.

The Lightning are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games against the Canadiens.

Montreal was missing centre Christian Dvorak, who was sidelined with an upper-body injury. Head coach Martin St. Louis decided to dress seven defencemen, with Kovacevic returning to the lineup after being a healthy scratch for the previous two games.

There was no scoring in the first period, during which the Canadiens outshot the Lightning 9-4.

Caufield opened the scoring at 3:58 of the second period with his second goal in two games and his 10th of the season. Kovacevic put the Canadiens up 2-0 at 11:59 on a bizarre goal.

Montembeault made a save on a point shot and after a brief delay — with no Lightning players around him — decided to keep the play going, giving the puck to Kovacevic. The in-house DJ at Amalie Arena thought the play was dead and started blaring music, even though a whistle never went. Tampa players heard the music and headed to the bench and Lightning goalie Jonas Johansson went for a little skate, figuring the play was dead. Kovacevic saw the empty net and fired the puck into it from deep in his own zone for his fifth goal of the season.

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Lightning fans voiced their displeasure the goal was allowed to count (blame the DJ) and it seemed to fire up the home team.

Point scored at the 14:01 mark and then Montembeault allowed a weak shot from Watson go through his legs to tie the score 2-2 at 17:36.

De Haan gave the Lightning the lead 7:49 into the third period and Kucherov made it 4-2 at 14:54. Suzuki scored his team-leading 11th goal at 17:55 with Montembeault on the bench for an extra attacker, but the Lightning were able to hold on for the victory.

Kucherov also had an assist and he leads the NHL in scoring with 26-35-61 totals. He has picked up points in 17 of his last 20 games against the Canadiens, posting 12-18-30 totals during that span.

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Steven Stamkos picked up an assist while playing in his 1,038th career game with the Lightning, passing Vincent Lecavalier for the most games played in franchise history. Stamkos has points in 18 of his last 20 games against the Canadiens, posting 10-15-25 totals during that span. Defenceman Victor Hedman picked up two assists, giving him 9-40-49 totals in 45 career games against the Canadiens. That’s the most all-time points by any Lightning player against the Canadiens, three ahead of Stamkos, who has 23-23-46 totals in 49 games against Montreal. Hedman ranks third in games played with the Lightning with 1,011.

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The Lightning stars are simply too much for the Canadiens to handle.

St. Louis ranks fourth in games played with the Lightning with 972. He won the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, along with the Hart Trophy as league MVP and the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer.

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“I grew up here, practically,” St. Louis told reporters in Tampa before the game. “I can’t even say it was a big part of my career … I feel it was my career. It’s always fun to come back here.”

When asked what a win in Tampa would mean to him, St. Louis said: “Every win in this league is a big, big, big game. Big win. They’re not easy to come by. You got to work and earn them, especially in the second half of the season as we’re getting there. Winning in Tampa would be special.”

The Canadiens will have one last chance to get a win on this road trip when they play the Stars on Tuesday in Dallas (8 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM), before returning home to face the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

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