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nhl playoffs

Montreal Canadiens left wing Max Pacioretty,center, is congratulated by defenseman P.K. Subban, left, and center Torrey Mitchell, right, after Pacioretty scored during the first period of Game 4 of a second-round NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, May 7, 2015.Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Associated Press

There can be a whiff of cultish zeal to a roomful of hockey players who are facing elimination. They profess unconditional faith in their leaders, repeat phrases to the point where they become incantations, and give themselves entirely to the mission that is the game plan.

The point is, it's easy to be cynical about it.

Sometimes, though, what seems from the outside like irrational belief is just the ticket.

After the Montreal Canadiens suffered an emotionally crippling last-second defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, there were a few shards of resolve expressed amid the general feeling of shock.

"We know we can beat these guys," said defenceman P.K. Subban.

The evidence doesn't support the claim. The Bolts entered Thursday's game four having won seven straight meetings between the clubs, and while Montreal had played well in a losing cause, they could not break through.

Twenty-four hours later, however, they did. Now the Habs can come home buoyed by a 6-2 blowout and the fact they chased Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, the man who has given them fits, after just 25 minutes.

When teams go down 0-3, there aren't a ton of options as to what happens next; some take a knee, others get the battle fever on.

"We woke up this morning feeling good about ourselves," said Habs winger Dale Weise. "The sun was out."

That type of positive talk is often a bluff, a rote form of bravado. In this case, it foreshadowed a big hand from a team that prides itself on its character.

Montreal's Max Pacioretty hasn't had a particularly effective postseason, and after Game 3 the grim-faced winger blamed himself and said "we have to find ways to put the puck in the net."

Here's one: When Subban flips a pass up the boards, you can chip it past a defender (Matt Carle, say), out-race him to the corner, and send an absolute peach of a spin-around pass to the slot. Maybe Subban will skate into it, twist a defender around with a couple of shimmies, and zip a no-look pass to Andrei Markov, skating in on the left side. And Markov might well take the puck of his skate and rifle an unstoppable shot past Bishop.

Were this to happen in the third minute of the game, it would constitute a bit of a moral boost, no?

Pacioretty not only made the above scenario reality, he decided to take matters into his own hands six minutes later with the Habs shorthanded. Defenceman Tom Gilbert banked a clearing off the glass, Pacioretty out-hustled Tyler Johnson to the puck, and then calmly finished with a wrist shot past Bishop.

It was only the second time of the post-season the Canadiens have held a two-goal lead, the first lasted less than a second, coming at the end of the game that eliminated the Ottawa Senators from the playoffs.

Two goals is no kind of margin against a team with Tampa's attacking options, so when David Desharnais – playing his second games in two nights after being bed-ridden with a virus for three days – ripped a slap-shot off the rush that Bishop mishandled with his glove.

The big Lightning goalie hadn't played in any back-to-back situations this season, so it can't have been a surprise that he wouldn't be around to finish this one; coach Jon Cooper pulled out the shepherd's crook, Andrei Vasilevskiy was summoned in relief.

It didn't stem the deluge.

Jeff Petry added Montreal's fourth on the power-play with 9:39 gone in the second – the club's first marker with the man-advantage since game two of the first round. When Brendan Gallagher ripped a hopeful slapshot from the right wing 15 seconds later, previous experience suggested it would be stopped.

The Habs had scored only 13 goals in their first nine playoff games. But when you're due, you're due, and the puck flew into the net to Vasilevskiy's right.

Tampa scored a pair of power-play goals to make things interesting – including one that came just 17 seconds into the third period – but tough guy Brandon Prust scored at the five minute mark to snuff out any hopes of a comeback.

Montreal coach Michel Therrien's teams have only ever been swept once in a seven-game series – it happened in the American Hockey League in 2003 – and suddenly words that felt vaguely desperate (like Weise's pronouncement that "we've been the better team five-on-five") sounds like a cause for hope.

Subban said after game three that showing up with one's best effort is a basic condition of employment at playoff time.

He played a strong two-way game and padded his team-leading scoring totals with two assists; Pacioretty carried the offence through the first two periods and notched three points.

More encouragingly for Montreal, who will try to make it a 3-2 series at home on Saturday, Alex Galchenyuk snapped a seven-game point drought and picked up two assists.

The situation is still bleak. The Habs have never made it to a sixth game in a series they've trailed 0-3 (it has happened on 10 previous occasions, they were swept five times).

But there is hope, at last, against an opponent that has given them precious little.