Heartbreak for Habs

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:47 PM ET


 There was never any doubt that the Montreal Canadiens, a team loaded with heart, would produce a monumental effort against the Tampa Bay Lightning last night.

 But it wasn't enough.

 The Lightning, no slouches themselves in the heart department, fought back from what should have been a debilitating blown lead in the third period to tie the game with 16.3 seconds left, then went on to win 4-3 in overtime.

 As a result, the Canadiens now trail the series 3-0 and even though they have another home game tomorrow, the outlook is dim.

 The heroes were numerous. Near-heroes in Montreal's case. Full-blown heroes for the Lightning.

 Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin kept his team in a game that the Canadiens were dominating. But Vincent Lecavalier, fighting off a determined physical assault by the Canadiens --and waves of unfamiliar boos in his home town -- tied the game in the dying seconds of regulation time.

 It was a goal not unlike the one San Jose's Jonathan Cheechoo scored against Colorado last week, poking his stick between his legs to get to a puck that was otherwise unavailable.

 "His was a little nicer," Lecavalier said with a laugh. "His was a shot. On mine, I just deflected it. I was a little lucky."

 BROKEN PLAY

 But it was enough to beat Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore and shatter the hearts of the Bell Centre crowd.

 "It was just a broken play," Montreal defenceman Craig Rivet said. "He (Dave Andreychuk) puts it on the net with a flip pass and the guy (Lecavalier) puts it through his legs. You can say it's lucky, but you make your own luck."

 The winner was in somewhat the same category. It might have looked lucky, but was pure skill.

 The puck went behind the Montreal net and Brad Richards hunted it down. Seeing that Theodore was still out in front of the crease, Richards banked it off his backside and into the net.

 Richards made it clear that he understands not only hockey but also the basic laws of physics.

 "When you see the goalie has his back to the play, there's a real good chance it's going to hit him and go back," he said.

 And when it did, the Canadiens' season was on the precipice.

 They could hardly be faulted. They played a superb game, even staging a third-period comeback to go in front. But Khabibulin was brilliant, repeatedly turning away Canadiens players who appeared to have sure goals.

 The Lightning got on the board first when the Canadiens forgot about defence during a second-period power play and allowed Cory Stillman a three-zone breakaway. He had all the time he needed to move in cautiously on Theodore, make a couple of dekes and finally score on a backhand.

 Then came the rarest occurrence in hockey. Not a penalty shot. Not even a conservative jacket on Don Cherry. The Canadiens scored before the power play ended. Invariably, a team that allows a short-handed goal is so demoralized that the power play ticks away.

 But this time, the Canadiens went back to the attack and Alexei Kovalev, who was robbed at least four times by Khabibulin last night, redirected Andre Markov's point shot between Khabibulin's legs.

 But only three minutes later, the Lightning, enjoying another power play, went in front on a slapper from the point that was deflected on the way in.

 The Canadiens refused to accept defeat. Michael Ryder, who hadn't had a goal in the playoffs, pounced on the rebound of Craig Rivet's shot and roofed it to tie the score before Patrice Brisebois scored what appeared to be the winner. But it was not to be.


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