Lightning, Canadiens find little room for separation
The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning do not share a rich and storied history in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The two teams have met once before in the playoffs, and if anyone in the Lightning organization is a believer in good omens, the matchup came in the second round in 2004, the season Tampa Bay won its only Stanley Cup.
The Lightning won three of four games against the Canadiens this season, but the series could not have been much closer.
Three of the four games were tied 1-1 after regulation time, and two of them remained tied after overtime. The one game which did not finish 2-1 was the final one of the season, a 3-1 Lightning win in Tampa where the score was 2-1 until the final minute. Alex Killorn scored into an empty net.
So based on the regular season, a tight-checking, low-scoring series should be expected.
"Both teams have pretty dynamic offensive players, so they're going to get their chances," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "You've just got to make sure you bury the extra one."
Each team qualified for the playoffs in the same game, the Lightning's 3-1 win against the Canadiens on April 1, and it's been clear for even longer that they would face each other in the first round. But home-ice advantage in the series came down to the final game of season when the Lightning needed a 1-0 shootout win on the road against the Washington Capitals on Sunday to ensure Game 1 will be played at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien predicted Friday how he would feel about having to start on the road.
"We won't know who will have home ice advantage until Sunday night, but I can already predict what the answers will be," Therrien said after practice. "The team that has it will say they're really happy, and the team that doesn't will say it's not important."
This Tampa Bay Lightning group is deep, young and fast.
The offensive leader is Steven Stamkos, who scores the most goals per game in the NHL, and by a wide margin. If losing longtime running mate Martin St. Louis in a trade to the New York Rangers affected Stamkos emotionally, which it clearly did, it had little impact on his offensive production. Stamkos finished with 25 goals in 37 games this season.
There is perhaps no greater power-play weapon in the League than the Stamkos one-timer from the left faceoff circle, a shot that can change a game at any given moment.
But the Lightning also learned how to live without Stamkos while he missed nearly four months recovering from a broken leg, and the young forwards were the ones who most bore the burden. As a result, the development curve was steepened considerably, making them better players and making the Lightning far more dangerous now that Stamkos has returned.
Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson are the two biggest examples, each a legitimate candidate for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie and each filling an important role for the Lightning. They are Cooper's top penalty-killing forwards, with Johnson tied for the NHL lead in shorthanded goals with five. Palat, in simple terms, has emerged as one of the NHL's top two-way forwards.
The addition of Ryan Callahan in the trade of St. Louis added to the grit quotient while bringing leadership and playoff experience to a group clearly lacking in that department. Center Valtteri Filppula has justified the big free-agent contract he signed in the offseason by providing consistent, reliable play anchoring the second line.
Montreal's acquisition of Thomas Vanek at the NHL Trade Deadline opened a world of options to coach Michel Therrien when it came to arranging his forwards.
After starting on a line with Tomas Plekanec, Vanek slid to the right wing of David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty to form what quickly became one of the hottest offensive lines in the NHL. In 14 full games together, the line combined for 18 goals and 23 assists, giving the Canadiens a truly elite top line for the first time in years.
The arrival of Vanek allowed Brendan Gallagher to move to the second line and captain Brian Gionta to the third line, making each more effective while facing lesser competition as the opposition focuses its efforts on the top unit.
Plekanec is used by Therrien in every situation and is one of the top penalty killers in the NHL. He is also one of six Montreal forwards with at least 40 points this season, a testament to the team's depth up front.
Montreal hopes to have Travis Moen (concussion) and Brandon Prust (upper body) healthy in time for Game 1. The two teamed with Dale Weise to form an effective fourth line which provided a physical presence.
The Canadiens will be without Alex Galchenyuk (lower body) for the duration of the series.
A 6-foot-6, 233-pound man should not be allowed to skate as well as Victor Hedman does patrolling the Lightning blue line.
Hedman, 23, has staked his claim to being one of the top defensemen in the NHL, topping 50 points and producing more points than he did in his two previous seasons combined. He plays more than two minutes per game on each special-teams unit and has the best possession numbers on the team.
As Hedman goes, so go the Lightning.
Surrounding him is a balanced group which can move the puck.
Veterans Eric Brewer, Sami Salo and Matthew Carle provide steady, consistent play, and Radko Gudas has established himself as a physical player on the back end, one who should thrive in the aggression of the postseason.
Cooper has options when filling out the sixth spot on defense with Michael Kostka, Andrej Sustr, Keith Aulie and Mark Barberio all in the mix for the one spot, and each is a capable player who has made significant contributions at one point or another this season.
The Canadiens have two of the best offensive defensemen in the League, Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, who are each in the top 20 in scoring among defensemen. They form the Canadiens top pair on the power play, but otherwise play on different pairings; Markov plays with Alexei Emelin and Subban with Josh Gorges.
Subban and Markov combined have an average time on ice of 37:38 at even strength, meaning for the great majority of the minutes in a typical game which are played at 5-on-5, Therrien has either Subban or Markov on the ice.
That number might climb even higher in the playoffs, but the Canadiens third pair on defense was shored up by another trade-deadline deal. Mike Weaver, acquired from the Florida Panthers the day before the deadline, has locked down the right side on the third pair by going plus-9 in his 17 games with Montreal, adding a goal and six assists. The left side of that pair will be filled by either Douglas Murray or Francis Bouillon, with youngster Jarred Tinordi available.
The dark cloud surrounding the Lightning entering the playoffs is the health of starting goaltender Ben Bishop.
Bishop sustained an upper-body injury while diving for a puck against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 8, costing him the final three games of the regular season.
The loss of Stamkos could have been crippling to the Lightning were it not for Bishop, who allowed the team to win some games it might not have deserved to win while all the young players grew accustomed to their bigger responsibilities.
Bishop's 37 wins, .924 save percentage and 2.23 goals-against average are among the top 10 in the NHL, so the Lightning's chances in the series rest heavily on his ability to quickly get healthy.
If he doesn't, the burden falls on Anders Lindback, who has had a difficult season, to be kind. If he falters, Cooper may turn to Latvian rookie Kristers Gudlevskis, who had Canada trembling while making 55 saves in a 2-1 loss at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and became the first player to play in the ECHL, the American Hockey, the NHL and the Olympics in the same season.
Another potential option for the Lightning is Russian super-prospect Andrey Vasilevskiy, who finished his season in the Kontinetal Hockey League last week. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said he was hoping to sign Vasilevskiy to a contract as soon as possible, so a secret weapon may be on the way in goal for Tampa Bay.
The Canadiens' greatest asset is in goal, where Carey Price completed the best season of his career and, at age 26, looks poised to take his place among the NHL's elite at the position.
His .927 save percentage is one of the best in the League, as well as a new career high for Price. Only Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins had more than his six shutouts.
Price also has the mental benefit of knowing he can respond in big games based on his experience at the Olympics, where he allowed three goals on 103 shots to help Canada win gold. Price returned from Sochi with a lower-body injury which cost him eight games, but the hidden benefit to that injury is that he enters the playoffs fresher than he's ever been this late in the season.
Price's backup is Peter Budaj, who has been excellent in spot duty but struggled while Price was unavailable due to his injury.
If Cooper is not nominated for the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL's top coach, an inquiry should be launched.
He has guided the Lightning through troubled waters, finding a solution as one obstacle after another was placed in the path of the Lightning.
On Nov . 12, the day after Stamkos broke his leg, Cooper defiantly predicted the Lightning would remain at the top of the standings. He then went out and found a way to make that happen, turning his team into a more defensively responsible unit and placing his trust in rookies to play big roles for which they might not have been fully prepared.
Then, coming out of the Olympic break and with the return of Stamkos imminent, a trade request from St. Louis was granted and suddenly Cooper lost his captain. He made that uncomfortable situation work as well, seamlessly integrating Callahan into the group to help the Lightning finish the season strong.
For a team that finished with 100 points and qualified for the playoffs two weeks before the end of the season, Therrien has been subject to a lot of criticism. His handling of young players, Subban in particular, has made the coach a target, but no one can deny his team is well positioned heading into the playoffs.
Since accepting the job prior to last season, Therrien has taken a team which finished last in the Eastern Conference and led it to a regular-season record of 75-42-13 in 130 games, a points percentage of .627.
But Therrien needs to prove he can be an effective tactician in the playoffs. Last season, the Canadiens were knocked out in five games by the Ottawa Senators. Montreal greatly outplayed Ottawa early in the series but was stymied by Senators goalie Craig Anderson before a number of key players were lost to injury.
Therrien showed a reluctance to make adjustments on the fly, something he will need to show an ability to do this year.
The Lightning power play can be broken down into two, almost perfectly even periods. Without Stamkos in the lineup, it clicked at a pedestrian 16.5 percent success rate. With him in the lineup, the Lightning had practically the same number of opportunities, but the success rate increased by about 4 percent.
Though the Lightning power play is in the middle of the pack, it is a completely different unit with Stamkos launching one-timers from the faceoff circle, and the mere threat of it distracts defenders enough to open up space for his teammates.
The Lightning penalty kill is one of the worst in the NHL, but one of the more dangerous with 10 shorthanded goals, tied for third most in the NHL.
The Canadiens power play enters the playoffs in an 0-for-23 drought, having failed to score in the final eight games of the regular season. At 17.2 percent on the season, the Canadiens finished outside the NHL's top 10 for the third time in nine seasons.
The Canadiens have two of the top power-play point men in the NHL, Subban and Markov, but opposing teams adjusted to take the points away about halfway through the season and Montreal was never able to counter the strategy.
The Montreal penalty kill has been outstanding, finishing the season at 85.1 percent, largely due to the improved play of Price while his team is shorthanded.
Ondrej Palat/Tyler Johnson -- Palat and Johnson play in all situations for the Lightning, and they will need to maintain the high level of play they've established this season or else all those situations may suffer.
This is the first experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for Johnson and Palat, as is the case for a number of young forwards on the Lightning, but Cooper has seen them perform in the playoffs before at the AHL level, so there is a level of trust there that doesn't normally exist between rookies and a coach.
Based on that, a slow start by either Palat or Johnson will likely be met with patience from Cooper, but if either of the two super rookies wilts under the pressure of the playoffs, it might be a short postseason for the Lightning.
P.K. Subban -- The defenseman ended the season with no points in his final six games and a minus-5 rating. He was benched for the majority of the first period of a 7-4 win against the Ottawa Senators on April 4 after he was on the ice for three goals against, and the benching became a matter of national security in Montreal.
Subban has not scored in 19 games and has three points in his past 10. Whether you blame Therrien or not, it is undeniable Subban has not been his normal self during the past couple of weeks and the Canadiens will need him to find his game in a hurry.
LIGHTNING WILL WIN IF ...
The Lightning will win if … They get playoff goaltending. Even if Bishop is able to return, he has no body of work in the playoffs and there is no way to know how he will react to the unique environment of the postseason. If Bishop is not back, this condition becomes all the more vital because of the difficulties Lindback has had this season. Goaltending is what got the Lightning to the playoffs, but it can just as easily be the reason why they are eliminated.
CANADIENS WILL WIN IF ...
The Canadiens will win if … The top line continues to produce at a prolific rate. Taking for granted that Price will continue his all-world play, the line of Desharnais, Pacioretty and Vanek will need to maintain the torrid pace it set during the 14 games together. Not only will it ensure a certain level of offense, it will allow the other lines to remain stable, which would make for one less thing for Therrien to worry about.
Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor LNH.com