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Lightning continue their winning ways on the road in Montreal

MONTREAL — When the Lightning were struggling on the road earlier this season, coach Jon Cooper flatly said that there would be a quick end to Tampa Bay’s season if the team didn’t start to play better away from Amalie Arena.

Now the Lightning are playing their best hockey of the season. And despite letting the Canadiens back into Thursday’s game in the third period, they continued to pile up points on the road, surviving Montreal’s late push to claim a 7-4 win at the Bell Centre.

The Lightning also swept their final back-to-back of the season, topping Toronto a day earlier. They are 10-1-1 in their last 12 games, with a league-best .875 points percentage over that stretch. Their surge has been propelled by a 6-0-1 mark in their last seven road games.

“If you can’t win on the road, you don’t win in the playoffs,” Cooper said. “That’s it. Bottom line. And for us to get in, you have to be able to win in another team’s building. I think our game’s matured from the back end all the way out.”

The Lightning needed goaltender Matt Tomkins, an emergency recall from AHL Syracuse, to step up late in his first NHL start since November. Tomkins made 14 of his 26 saves in a third period that saw the Canadiens rally to cut a four-goal lead to two less than nine minutes in.

The Lightning can clinch a postseason berth in the coming days, and Thursday’s win put them just two points behind Toronto for the third-place playoff position in the Atlantic Division.

“I think our game’s rounding out,” said captain Steven Stamkos, whose three-point night was highlighted by a go-ahead goal that fueled a four-goal second period for the Lightning. “I don’t think it’s perfect, by any means. But, you know, we’ve put together a really solid stretch where we really needed those points.”

A period to remember

Just as they did Wednesday in Toronto, the Lightning took control of the game in the second period, scoring four goals over a 10-minute stretch that gave them a 6-2 lead.

The Lightning dominated possession time and had the Canadiens hemmed in their own zone throughout most of the period, with a 20-6 shots on goal advantage.

Stamkos’ goal at the 7:58 mark was a perfect example, as the Lightning kept the puck in the offensive zone and moved it around efficiently until Anthony Cirelli found Stamkos with a cross-slot pass for a one-timer from the left circle.

“Just start working in the offensive zone, not being one and done,” center Nick Paul said. “Just keep pounding pucks in and creating second, third and fourth chances, win those battles, get up to the D, get to the net. I thought we moved our feet north real quick. And when people stepped up and there’s no play, just get it behind them.”

Paul from long distance

Most of Paul’s goals come around the net front, but over the last two nights, he has shown that he possesses a shot that can score from further out.

Paul ended Wednesday whipping a wrister from the high right circle to seal the Lightning’s win in Toronto, then started Tampa Bay’s scoring Thursday by jumping on a rebound in front to tie the score at 1 in the first period.

He then rifled a shot from the high slot in the second period, beating Canadiens goaltender Cayden Primeau on his goal side for his 22nd goal of the season and third in two games.

“I’ve gotten some nice space with the puck in the scoring areas and just hit the net,” Paul said.

Tomkins’ time to shine

Tomkins, who earned his first NHL win in his last start in this building nearly five months ago, didn’t get tested early, but faced an onslaught in the third period.

Montreal had 27 shot attempts and 16 shots on goal in the period, which also included seven high-danger scoring chances.

“Lack of execution, lack of urgency, (whatever you) call it, with that score, it’s human nature,” Stamkos said. “But at the same time, you want to create those good habits when you have a lead in the third.”

Staked to a big lead, the Lightning were loose in their own end, and after Montreal scored twice to make it a 6-4 game, Tomkins had to make some huge saves late, especially when the Canadiens pulled the goaltender for an extra attacker with around five minutes remaining.

“As a goalie, you always want to weather the storm whenever teams are making a push like that,” Tomkins said. “So just try to stay composed and make the saves that I’m supposed to and just do my job. I thought I did it well. Obviously, they had a lot of really good chances. So good to keep them at bay and not give them a reason to keep pushing.”

Playing it safe

Cirelli and wing Brandon Hagel both left the game early as precautions. Cirelli didn’t skate a shift in the third period, his last one ending with 4:54 remaining in the second.

Hagel went down the tunnel and didn’t return after colliding with Stamkos with 7:07 remaining in the third.

“We’re getting at a point now that it’s lot a precaution stuff here,” Cooper said. “You don’t want to tempt anything so we kept them out.”

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