MONTREAL — The Lightning being officially eliminated from the playoff race always has been a matter of when rather than if.
Even so, after a 3-2 loss to the Canadiens on Thursday night at the Bell Centre put an exclamation point on it, there was the solemnity befitting the moment.
"You never want to be in that situation, and I don't believe we should be in that situation," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "But that's where we are."
But on the day the team's postseason hopes were completely extinguished for the fifth time in six years, it played what coach Jon Cooper said was "the best game we played start-to-finish" of his 11-game tenure.
Goals by Richard Panik and Lecavalier (his 5:07 into the third period) erased a two-goal deficit.
Victor Hedman had two assists. The team blocked 17 shots and outhit Montreal 23-13, and goaltender Ben Bishop and Montreal's Carey Price put on quite a show, both getting 32 saves.
It all prompted Cooper to say, "If you consistently play like we did, we're going to win more games than we lose."
Still, Tampa Bay (17-23-4) — which lost its fifth straight and ended its road trip 0-2-2 — contributed to its own demise.
The most glaring error was Ben Pouliot's holding penalty on P.K. Subban with 2:21 left in the third period, which led to Brian Gionta's winner with 46.4 seconds left; Montreal's first goal in six power-play chances.
Gionta, to the left of the net, was able to gather Yannick Weber's shot off the end boards and pop it past Bishop.
Pouliot, though, hinted Subban dived to draw the penalty.
"It depends on how you see it," he said. "Usually with P.K., moves are overexaggerated."
Still, Pouliot put his arms around Subban and gave the referee an excuse to make a call. And he did it 29 seconds after Tampa Bay killed off Ryan Malone's minor penalty for goaltender interference.
"You can debate the calls. That's not the issue," Cooper said. "The issue is we put ourselves in position to take them. When you do that, you can only kill off so many. And we came up one short."
Alex Galchenyuk outmaneuvered three Lightning defenders in the crease to score Montreal's first goal. Malone's defensive-zone giveaway led to Gionta's first goal. And Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell put shots off either a post or crossbar in the first period.
"If those go in, it might be a different game," Lecavalier said.
Instead, it was another loss and another year out of the playoffs.
"We knew we were out," Cooper said. "But tribute to the guys, they kept battling."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.
First Period—None. Penalties—None.
Second Period—1, Montreal, Galchenyuk 9 (Gallagher, Drewiske), 4:04. 2, Montreal, Gionta 13 (Plekanec, Pacioretty), 15:05. 3, Tampa Bay, Panik 5 (Hedman, Killorn), 17:36 (pp). Penalties—Purcell, TB (hooking), 1:31; Malone, TB (slashing), 8:46; Subban, Mon (interference), 15:54.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, Lecavalier 10 (Pouliot, Hedman), 5:07. 5, Montreal, Gionta 14 (Weber, Ryder), 19:13 (pp). Penalties—Brewer, TB (tripping), :36; Hedman, TB (roughing), 10:28; Gorges, Mon (tripping), 12:59; Malone, TB (goaltender interference), 15:10; Pouliot, TB (holding), 17:39. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 10-11-13—34. Montreal 10-13-12—35. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 2; Montreal 1 of 6. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Bishop 10-9-1 (35 shots-32 saves). Montreal, Price 20-11-4 (34-32).