MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens showed they still have some fight left in them after going toe to toe with the NHL's best team.
The Canadiens pushed the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning to a shootout Saturday, where they lost 4-3 on Brayden Point's winner.
"They're one of the best teams in the league, if not the best," said Jonathan Drouin of his former club. "Second time we take them to overtime at home (this season). We played really well today, dominated at times. We skated well, we were on the puck, moved it well.
"We played a good game tonight."
The struggling Canadiens (23-29-9), who have won just once in their last eight games, played some of their best hockey in recent memory. Montreal matched Tampa's speed, toughness and tenacity for most of the game.
Byron Froese, Joe Morrow and Max Pacioretty scored for the Habs. Antti Niemi, making his second straight start in relief of the injured Carey Price, stopped 36-of-39 shots in defeat. Price is sidelined indefinitely with a concussion.
"We maintained a good rhythm from start to finish," said coach Claude Julien. "There were some defensive mistakes that led to good scoring chances on both sides. Our goalie played a great game. Happy with the overall effort."
The Canadiens led 3-2 going into the third period when Ryan Callahan tied the game two minutes in. With Phillip Danault in the box for slashing, Callahan redirected Nikita Kucherov's shot past Niemi.
The overtime period was frantic, with both teams trading scoring chances. Pacioretty failed to score on a breakaway, his third of the encounter. The Canadiens captain missed two breakaway chances in the second period.
Montreal then fought off Morrow's two-minute high-sticking penalty to force a shootout, where Point beat Niemi top shelf for the shootout's only goal.
The victory propelled Tampa Bay (42-17-3) into first place in the league, one point ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights. Jon Cooper's men have won three straight games.
"Three-game road trip and we got six points," said Cooper. "The guys are finding a way. It's a hard league to win in, it really is. And they're finding a way. But you can't be down in the third and expect every time you're going to come back and play the right way. That urgency has to be there for a lot more of the game than it was tonight."
Froese opened the scoring for the home team by deflecting Jordie Benn's shot from the blue line past Andrei Vasilevskiy at 8:52 of the first period.
Tampa equalized when Point entered the zone with speed, crossed up defencemen Benn and Morrow before beating Niemi blocker side at 12:07.
Kucherov gave Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead at 7:32 of the second period, on the power play, to extend his point streak to nine games. Kucherov went five-hole on Niemi with a one-timer for his team-leading 33rd goal of the year.
The Bolts have the second-best power play in the NHL. They finished 2 for 5 with the extra skater.
Less than two minutes later, Morrow levelled the score with a precise wrist shot through traffic off the post and in.
Pacioretty, with the man advantage, ended an 11-game goalless drought to give Montreal a 3-2 lead at 16:29 of the second period. Pacioretty jumped on a rebound in the slot for his first goal since Jan. 25.
Vasilevskiy made 29 saves for his league-leading 36th win of the season.
Steven Stamkos dropped the gloves with Karl Alzner in the first period after objecting to a knee-on-knee with Kucherov. He was given 17 minutes of penalties on the play.
"I was watching Kucherov and it looked like a knee, fast," said Stamkos. "And he kind of held his knee so I didn't know if he was hurt or not. It was just kind of a reaction thing. I know Alzner well and he's not a dirty player.
"It wasn't as malicious as I thought at the time."
Tomas Plekanec, for precautionary reasons, was a healthy scratch. The Canadiens are expected to trade their veteran centre, the team's longest serving active player, before Monday's trade deadline.
Notes: Kucherov has 16 points in his last nine games. … It was the third of four meetings between the Canadiens and Lightning this season.
Kelsey Patterson, The Canadian Press