If Steven Stamkos' attempt at a 60-goal season is a bright spot in a lost season for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the play of veteran Erik Cole and his linemates has been the same for the Montreal Canadiens.
Big wingers Cole and Max Pacioretty each scored two goals and their diminutive centre David Desharnais had a pair of assists as the Canadiens ended a four-game winless run with a 5-2 victory over the Lightning on Wednesday night.
Stamkos was held off the scoresheet despite taking four of Tampa Bay's 16 shots. He remains at 58 goals heading into a game Thursday night in Toronto — his hometown — and the Lightning's season finale Saturday in Winnipeg.
Both teams are eliminated from playoff contention, but each has positives to pull from the wreckage.
Cole with 34 goals, Pacioretty with 32 and Desharnais with 16 — but also a team-leading 44 assists — have each reached the 60-point mark and established themselves as a consistent scoring line heading into next season.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Pacioretty, with his first goals in 12 games. “It's important for us to show our fans that we're not that far from being a contending team.
“We have a good core group of players. We don't need to shake things up too much to be competitive.”
Pacioretty rebounded from a career-threatening neck injury late in the 2010-11 season after a hit into a stanchion by Boston's Zdeno Chara to become the team's scoring leader with 63 points.
Cole was signed from Carolina as a free agent last summer and has been the club's best player.
And 25-year-old Desharnais, generously listed at five-foot-seven, has stumped the experts by proving he can be the same productive playmaker he was at lower levels amid the crashing pace of NHL play.
“That's why they call him Casper, he's like a ghost out there,” Pacioretty said of his centre. “He finds ways to get the puck in the zone with full control.”
Desharnais, of Laurier Station, Que., called his linemates “incredible.”
“They're probably the best two wingers I can have. They're big, they're strong and they shoot the puck. It makes my life a lot easier.”
Cole got his two in the second period, Pacioretty had a pair in the third and Alexei Emelin also scored for Montreal (30-35-15), which remains last in the NHL Eastern Conference.
Vincent Lecavalier scored on a gift from Montreal backup goalie Peter Budaj and Bruno Gervais also got one for Tampa Bay (37-36-7), which was outshot 25-16
Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher called it his team's worst performance of the season, along with a 3-0 loss in St. Louis in November.
“We just didn't shoot,” he said. “We tried the fancy play all night.
“If you play like that, you're going to lose. They shot and they won the game.”
He was also concerned about the club's season-long woes on the road. They are 12-22-5 away from home, only ahead of the woeful Columbus Blue Jackets.
That cancelled out the effect of tying a franchise record with 25 home wins.
“At some point, the players have to be better,” he said. “The game plan doesn't change whether home or away. What changes is how you perform and we haven't been very good on the road this year.”
The Bell Centre was relatively quiet with hundreds of empty seats for the game between two teams eliminated from the playoffs.
Stamkos had numerous chances, including a half-dozen during a second-period power play, but either missed the target or was stopped by Budaj. But that was the Bolt's only dangerous sequence on attack in the game.
He is bidding to become the league's first 60-goal man since Alex Ovechkin had 65 in 2007-08.
Emelin sneaked in from the blue-line to take a pass from Desharnais and score on his own rebound 2:11 into the game.
Budaj, the starter now that Carey Price is gone for the rest of the season with a concussion, had a brain cramp as he cleared the puck onto Lecavalier's stick with the net wide open at 7:26.
Cole restored the lead 1:42 into the second as he one-timed a Desharnais feed past Sebastien Caron from the faceoff dot and then added his 34th of the season by tipping in a point shot on a power play at 14:34.
Gervais scored 3:42 into the third period when his shot pinballed in off traffic in front of Budaj, but Pacioretty got it back with his first in 12 games on a rebound of Josh Gorges' shot. He added another on a break down the right side at 14:59.
Cole has 11 goals in his last 12 games.
Montreal has two games left this season — Thursday night in Carolina and Saturday at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Notes: Gabriel Dumont, called up this week, played his first NHL game for Montreal against his former Drummondville junior coach Guy Boucher. . . Cole played his 700th and Max Pacioretty his 200th NHL game. . . The Canadiens announced Wednesday that Price had a mild concussion and would miss the team's final three games. They play Thursday in Carolina and end the season at home Saturday against Toronto.
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