QUEBEC - The Montreal Canadiens saved their best for last after a lacklustre pre-season, downing the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-1 on Saturday in their final exhibition game.
The game was played before a sellout crowd in Quebec City as part of an annual ritual where the Habs play a pre-season contest in the provincial capital.
The Canadiens' lopsided victory came on the tail end of an exhibition schedule in which they won only one of their seven previous games and were drubbed 4-0 by Tampa earlier in the week.
Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez each scored and led the Habs on numerous rushes, while Mathieu Darche, Erik Cole and Michael Cammalleri had the other Montreal goals.
Gionta, calling it 60 solid minutes of play, said Saturday's effort was far greater than the one put up by the team two nights earlier.
The Canadiens outshot their Tampa Bay 32-19, while the Lightning's lone goal came from Vincent Lecavalier.
The damage for Tampa Bay could conceivably extend into the regular season.
Forward Ryan Malone was thrown out of the game for a bodycheck to the head of Chris Campoli while the Habs defenceman was exiting his zone.
Malone now risks being the latest NHLer to face discipline as the league cracks down on head shots. Campoli was forced to leave the game amid fears he suffered a concussion. It was only his second game since signing with the Canadiens.
Montreal defenceman Hal Gill said the hit was a clear head shot — one seen far too often in the league and the kind that has been getting considerable attention lately.
Malone defended himself. He said he was approaching Campoli to finish a body check and that the defenceman unexpectedly leaned forward. He said it wasn't his intention to hit his head, adding it was the first time he had been involved in such an incident.
The Habs now head to Collingwood, Ont., in preparation for the regular-season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
Saturday was the first time this fall that the Canadiens fielded a team resembling their regular lineup and the contrast from recent games was unmistakable.
Not only was the final score a reversal from the previous Montreal-Tampa contest, but so was the overall flow of the game.
The Canadiens power play opened the scoring with a short-handed goal at 9:59 of the opening period when Gionta intercepted a Steven Stamkos pass and waltzed in alone to deke Lightning goalie Mathieu Garon between his legs.
It was during that period that Malone nearly came to blows with the Habs' P.K. Subban. Gill stepped in to defend his younger teammate and pinned Malone to the ice. The Lightning forward drew the extra penalty.
The Habs outshot Tampa 15-9 in the second. Gomez scored a bizarre power-play goal at 2:19 into the period when — with two Lightning players in front of him — he bounced a dribbler over Garon's pads.
Lecavalier narrowed the gap just over a minute later, when he used his considerable reach to shovel in a centring pass from Teddy Purcell past goalie Carey Price.
Darche restored the Canadiens' two-goal lead at 5:39 of the period with a tip-in off a shot from defenceman Jaroslav Spacek.
Cole stole the puck off Lightning defenceman Brett Clark and scored on a top-shelf wrist shot to widen the gap less than three minutes later.
It was a quieter third period, save for the controversy involving Malone and Cammalleri rounding out the scoring.