The Tampa Bay Lightning have gone 5-0-0 against the Montreal Canadiens in the regular season and they’re hoping for more of the same in the post-season. They outscored the Habs 21-8 and won three times at the Bell Centre. The Lightning have also won their last five regular season trips to the Bell Centre, which could spell trouble for home ice in Montreal.
Of course, the playoffs are a different animal and that’s where things get tricky for Tampa. The Lightning were swept by the Canadiens in last year’s playoffs. Montreal averaged four goals a game, too, and Tampa Bay looked out of it for most of the first round series. Ben Bishop was out with an injury and the Habs took full advantage. Tampa is looking for revenge.
This should be battle of Montreal’s defence and Tampa’s offence. Tampa had 259 goals in the regular season, leading the league, while the Canadiens’ defence helped them to a stellar year. Each team posted 32 losses, but Montreal edged out the Lightning in the final standings thanks to two fewer regulation losses. It could be a very close series.
The Canadians can get production from every line. They needed it to take down the Ottawa Senators in the first round. The Habs four-line attack first went to work against goalie Andrew Hammond, chasing him after he allowed seven goals in two playoff games. They were solid down the middle, with productive centres like Torrey Mitchell, Tomas Plekanec and Brian Flynn each finishing with a goal and two helpers.
And they looked slick on the wing, too. Max Pacioretty had a couple of goals and so did Dale Weise, but nobody really took over the scoring for the Habs. They did what they had to do, but there were no breakout players. Pacioretty, who had 37 goals in the regular season, could emerge in the second round against the Lightning. He returned from injury in Game Two of the first round and will be looking for more.
Meanwhile, Lars Eller was effective on the dot with a 61.6 percent success rate on the faceoff. He had a goal and finished with two points, while centre David Desharnais had positive faceoff stats as well and took home two assists in the series against Ottawa. There is solid production and possession capabilities down through all four lines and that could give Tampa a lot to handle as the series rolls on.
Of course, Tampa is no slouch in terms of depth. Unfortunately, their best player was limited by the Detroit Red Wings. Steven Stamkos was held to just three assists in the series. It was rare and weird to see him without a goal, but he seemed to find balance and consistency in his defensive play. The Lightning will be looking for more against the Canadiens and he’ll still be a tough assignment.
The line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat had success offensively, though, and that pushed Tampa over the line. Johnson had six goals, tying St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko for the most markers in the first round. He scored twice in Game Two, twice in Game Four and twice in Game Six. Montreal might want to watch out for a trend.
Tampa has been trying work balance into their attack, like the Habs, and it shows when you look at ice time. Eight forwards put up at least 15 minutes but nobody eclipsed 19:51 a game. The forward with the most ice time was 25-year-old Alex Killorn, who came up with four points in seven games and had 23 shots on goal.
Defensively, this comes down to the pairing of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov for the Canadiens. Subban logged 25:08 per game on average. He had four points. He drew the ire of the opposition and the opposition crowd. Markov, meanwhile, had an average of 25:03 minutes a game and blocked shots like a madman. He had 15 of the in the first round.
Jeff Petry and Alexei Emelin were the second pair and they were also effective. Petry was a hit machine, posting 16 against the Sens. And he blocked 11 shots, averaging 22:08 a game. Emelin had 19 hits and averaged nearly 21 minutes a game, proving a valuable partner for the newly-acquired Petry.
Tampa can activate their defence. They did so to great effect against the Red Wings, with their blueliners accounting for five goals. Braydon Coburn had the series-winner in Game Seven, while the top pair of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman will be tough to beat. Each of them had more than 30 points in the regular season and they’re tough to knock off the puck.
The Habs would also do well to pay attention to Jason Garrison, who brings that big cannon from the blueline. The 30-year-old had a goal in the first round and popped off three shots on net. He’s capable of creating chances off rebounds, which is a big factor for the power play.
Tampa’s Ben Bishop could very well by a difference maker in this series. He wasn’t around for last year’s debacle against the Habs. He didn’t look tremendous against Detroit, but he did hold the fort for the last two games and had a shutout for Game Seven. The Lightning will be looking for that sort of tenacity as they face Montreal. He finished the round with a 1.87 goals against average and a .922 save percentage.
Carey Price proved his Vezina qualities in the first round against Ottawa and he’ll be in for a lot more against the Lightning. He is one of the best goalies in the game. He posted a 1.94 goals against average to go with a .939 save percentage in the first round. He made 43 saves in Game Six, becoming the first goalie to shut out Ottawa this year. Price will, without question, be ready.
If the series comes down to goaltending, the edge goes to Montreal. But if Tampa can mobilize the defence like they did with the Wings, they stand a chance of scoring some ugly goals. The Lightning will also need more out of Stamkos, so if he can find the scoreboard and generate some momentum he could put the Habs on their heels. Those are a lot of “ifs,” but things could swing either way in this series and both teams know it.