A successful all-star game in Montreal over the weekend gave the Canadiens a brief reprieve to their recent slide, but once the NHL's regular season resumed Tuesday night, the team returned to its losing ways.
The Tampa Bay Lightning used three unanswered goals in the second and 31 saves by goaltender Mike Smith to defeat Montreal 5-3 in Tampa, Fla.
Star centre Vincent Lecavalier, who received a warm hometown ovation during the all-star game on Sunday amid rumours he could be traded to Montreal, scored a goal and added an assist.
Smith was brilliant for the Lightning (17-21-10), who earned their third consecutive win.
The Tampa Bay goaltender made 18 saves in the first period alone, and shut the door during a Montreal five-on-three power play.
"We were a little sleepy. The first period was not a good period for us," Lightning interim coach Rick Tocchet said. "The good thing about it, we responded. To me, that's a sign of a team that's coming together."
Ryan Malone, Vaclav Prospal, Steve Downie and Martin St. Louis also tallied for the Lightning.
"I think our big-time players, they came big at key times," St. Louis said. "We're becoming a tougher team to play against."
Despite an 11-2-1 stretch from Dec. 18-Jan. 17, the Canadiens (27-14-6) headed into the all-star break dropping games to Atlanta and New Jersey before suffering their third straight loss to the Lightning on Tuesday.
Maxim Lapierre scored two goals and all-star MVP Alex Kovalev added his 13th tally of the season for Montreal. Goaltender Carey Price stopped 19 of 24 Lightning shots.
"You can't blame him for everything," Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said of Price. "But on the other side, our goalies are going to have to be stronger. We can't win games giving up four of five goals every game, and the last two or three weeks it's been kind of that way."
After Malone opened the scoring for Tampa Bay just 3:08 into the first period, the Canadiens responded with two goals in less than a minute.
The Habs tied the game at 7:15 when Lapierre redirected a slapshot by defenceman Andrei Markov behind Smith.
The Lightning goaltender was then responsible for Montreal's go-ahead marker 51 seconds later. Smith's careless clearing attempt was intercepted by Kovalev, who buried a shot into the open side.
Montreal, which outshot Tampa Bay 20-7 through the opening 20 minutes, failed to increase its lead after failing to capitalize on the five-on-three penalty.
"I think we could have had a couple more goals in the first, but that's the only period we played, pretty much," Montreal winger Christopher Higgins said.
"I think we got outworked in the second half of that game. I don't know what guys expected, if they thought they were going to quit or anything. They were only down one goal after the first, and that's a team trying to make it into the playoffs. They're not going to roll over."
The Canadiens also escaped potential disaster with more than two minutes remaining in the eventful first when Tampa Bay was awarded a penalty shot and a power play during the same play.
Montreal's Josh Gorges was called for covering the puck in the crease, while defensive partner Roman Hamrlik went off for hooking.
But Price denied Mark Recchi on the ensuing break, and stood tall with the Canadiens short-handed.
The Lightning responded with three goals in the second period.
Lecavalier broke free to the left of Price on the power play and sailed his 22 goal of the season over the shoulder of the Canadiens netminder to even the contest at 2:49.
Tampa Bay took a 3-2 lead 12:08 later as Prospal corralled the puck in the slot before banking a shot off Price.
The bouncing puck continued to haunt Montreal with the Lightning's fourth goal coming just before the end of the second period. Stationed behind the Montreal net, Downie's attempted pass out front hit Hamrlik's right skate and went by Price.
"You need your offensive guys to score goals, and you need your third and fourth lines to chip in goals like they have been the last few games," Prospal said.
St. Louis iced the game in the third with a power-play goal at 11:04, while Lapierre was credited with Montreal's final tally 22 second later.