The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning finally begin their highly anticipated first round playoff series tonight at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in the sunny state of Florida.
There was not much to separate the two teams at first glance, as the Lightning ousted Montreal for home ice advantage by winning a shootout on their final regular season game of the year. Tampa would finish the season with 101 points, while the Habs finished just behind them in third place in the Atlantic Division with an even 100 points in the standings.
On the surface, these teams were extremely close in the standings, but when you dive a little deeper, some trends certainly emerge.
The Canadiens leaned heavily on Carey Price all season, and the Lightning were even more reliant on Ben Bishop. Price has been exceptional down the stretch and enter the playoff series on a high, while Bishop was injured with just four games to play, and will not be ready for game one.
The Lightning will turn to 6’6” Anders Lindback for tonight’s game, and his numbers are nowhere near the one’s that Bishop posted. Bishop is a Vezina Trophy candidate with a goals against average of 2.23 and a .924 save percentage to go with his 37 wins and 5 shutouts.
Lindback on the other hand went 8-12-2 with a 2.90 GAA and .891 SV% for Tampa Bay. He played his best hockey of the season after Bishop was injured, earning first star of the week honors in the final week of the regular season.
Price put together one of the best season’s of his career, finishing with his second most wins (34), and shutouts (6), and posting his best GAA (2.32) and SV% (.927) in his NHL career.
If Bishop returns for game two, Montreal still holds a slight edge in goal. If the Lindback of the past week hangs around for the series, then the Lightning will be fine in net. If the Lindback of the first 78 games of the season returns to Tampa’s goal, the Canadiens have a huge advantage.
Hedman was drafted 2nd overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, between John Tavares and Matt Duchene. It was a slow climb to the top of the Lightning depth chart, but don’t let an egregious oversight by Team Sweden’s Olympic brass fool you, Hedman is one of the best defenders in the world right now.
Hedman plays in all situations, blocks shots, hits, skates extremely well and finished fourth among all defenseman with 55 points this season. He will be counted on to play an enormous role for the Lightning in this series, and will not disappoint.
Subban was outscored by Hedman by a couple of points (55-53), and also plays in all situations, hits, is a tremendous skater, plays against the best players in the world and makes it look easy. His defensive zone play has improved drastically in the past few seasons, to the point where he is as good in one end of the rink as the other now.
Behind Hedman the Lightning have a great number two option in Matthew Carle. Carle was second on the Lightning’s defense in ice time with just over 22 minutes per game, and chipped in 31 points as well.
Not quite the same offensive production as the Habs number two guy, Andrei Markov. Markov played 81 games this season, the most he has suited up for since 2007-08, and piled up 43 points in the process. Markov remains an elite offensive defenseman, and power play option at the age of 35.
What Carle gives up to Markov on offense, he more than makes up for as in his defensive role. He led the Lightning in both shorthanded and even strength ice time, a sure sign of his reliability and steady play all season. Not long ago, many pundits believed Carle was only posting solid numbers because he was paired with Chris Pronger in his days with the Philadelphia Flyers. He has more than proved them wrong with his excellent play in Tampa.
Behind their top duo, both teams lean heavily on a solid veteran. Montreal pairs Subban with reliable Josh Gorges who blocks as many shots as anyone not named Andrew MacDonald. Gorges was a big part of the Canadiens penalty killing unit all season, and averaged 17:31 per game at even strength.
The Lightning have veterans Eric Brewer and Sami Salo to lean on and round out their top four. Neither are spectacular, and both have had their best NHL years pass them by, but the remain steady contributors for the Lightning, and give Tampa a deep and experienced blue line.
Radko Gudas is certainly the most physical of the Lightning blue liners. He led Tampa Bay in hits by a wide margin. Ondrej Palat ranked second with 146, but trailed Gudas’ 273 by nearly two hits per game. Gudas is only slightly above average in size at 6’0” and just over 200 pounds, but he hits to hurt and he hits a lot.
The closest comparison on the Habs roster would be Alexei Emelin who threw 189 hits in just 59 games. The Russian defender has really stepped his game up lately, and gives the Canadiens a solid top four, playing with Markov and being slotted behind Gorges and Subban.
However, Emelin is not nearly as mean as the Lightning’s menacing defenseman, who will surely have us Habs fans up in arms about a controversial hit at some point in this series.
The Canadiens defense is rounded out by the least flashy, yet least likely to make a mistake and that is Mike Weaver. The Habs picked him up from Florida at the trade deadline and he has fit in seamlessly on the bottom pairing and helping with shorthanded duties. He blocks a cross crease pass as good as anyone in the league, and with Steven Stamkos waiting to receive those passes in this series, Weaver could be critical.
The 6th spot on the Habs defense will go to either Douglas Murray or Francis Bouillon throughout this series. Both are far from the defensemen they once were, and they were never anything special. Murray is certainly the strongest of the Habs players, but his lack of speed will be hard to cover up against a fast group of Tampa forwards.
Considering Subban is matched in this series by Hedman, I have to give a slight edge on defense to the Lightning, only because the rest are pretty much even with the exception of Bouillon or Murray being a major disaster waiting to happen.
Up front the Canadiens employ one of the most dangerous lines in the league during the latter portion of the season. Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek have been fantastic, and Pacioretty nearly became the first Habs player in 20 years to reach the 40 goal plateau. He finished third in the league with 39, behind Corey Perry and Alex Ovechkin.
The Canadiens don’t have a great second line, but have three steady lines behind the top scoring trio. Tomas Plekanec finished second on the team in goals with 20, and was the next highest scoring forward with 43 points. Brendan Gallagher and Brian Gionta were close behind with 19 and 18 goals and 41 and 40 points respectively.
Alex Galchenyuk scored 31 points in 65 games but will miss the series with an injury. Lars Eller and Daniel Briere had mostly disappointing seasons, scoring just 26 and 25 points. Briere has an incredible playoff resume, so a bounce back is not totally out of the question and would be a huge boost to the low scoring Habs.
The Lightning have one of the least recognizable group of forwards but that doesn’t mean they can’t put the puck in the net. They had four 20 goal scorers in Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, Tyler Johnson and of course Steven Stamkos.
Tampa outscored Montreal 240-215 in the regular season, and were without Stamkos for half the season. With the league’s top goal scorer back, and playing well down the stretch, the Lightning get a slight edge in forwards.
Though Tampa has a slight edge in forwards and defensemen, I believe Carey Price can be the difference in this series, and nullify any advantage the Lightning may have. If Bishop comes back to full health in time for game two, Tampa has a chance, but Price is a much better goaltender than Lindback and goaltending is often the difference in a playoff series.
My prediction: Habs in 6