Canadiens vs. Lightning: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup
The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning will face each other in first-round playoff action this week. The two teams have almost identical records and have seen good things happen during the season.
What are the keys to the series? Who is more likely to win? Here's a preview, and the reasons one team is more likely to win it than the other.
Montreal's season: 82GP, 46-28-8, third place in the Atlantic Division
Max Pacioretty had 39 goals, P.K. Subban had a strong year and Carey Price continued to be an elite goaltender. The Canadiens' depth was strong this season and was aided by two smart additions at the deadline—Tomas Vanek and Mike Weaver. Montreal lacks size in its lineup, but the Habs are a skilled, veteran group.
Tampa Bay's season: 82GP, 46-27-9, second place in the Atlantic Division
This has been a bizarre season for the Lightning. The club traded the face of the franchise, Martin St. Louis, and endured a long period without Steven Stamkos. The Lightning did have balanced scoring—five players over 20 goals—and introduced delightful rookie Ondrej Palat. They are a contender but are also young—eight of their key players are 23 or younger.
O Canada: The Montreal Canadiens are the only Canadian team to make the playoffs this season, per TSN.ca. The nation is unlikely to rally behind them, because loyalties are broken down by region—but you will find fans who cheer for and against Montreal in every province. The country will be a house divided during this spring's playoffs.
Bishop Injury: The Tampa Bay Lightning announced this week they shut down Ben Bishop. The TSN article quotes coach Jon Cooper suggesting Bishop might appear at some point during the first round of the playoffs. Bishop had a splendid season, and the Lightning were counting on him to match Carey Price's heroics in the Montreal net.
Ryan Malone: On the eve of the playoffs, Lightning forward Ryan Malone has became a big story. The Associated Press reports (via CTVNews.ca) that Malone was charged Saturday with DUI and possession of cocaine. Malone did not play a feature role this season, but it's anyone's guess as to how this might impact the team.
Players to Watch
Steven the Great: Steven Stamkos has 10 goals in his most recent 14 games. His scoring ability can be the difference in this series, and containing him—especially on the power play—is a tall order. Stamkos is one of the few players in the game who can outscore quality defense, and his ability to score from crazy angles is legendary. NHL teams haven't found an answer for a healthy Steven Stamkos.
P.K. Subban: It's rare for an NHL team to be uncertain about its Norris Trophy defenseman. The Canadiens have shown impatience with Subban this season. Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette sums up the situation very well in discussing the defender's next contract. Subban can go a long way to earning a massive payday with a strong playoff run.
The Price is Right: Carey Price is among the league's best goaltenders. He is coming off an Olympic gold-medal performance and could author a big part of this spring's playoff story. Montreal fans have witnessed some of the epic goaltending performances in the game's history, and Price has that kind of pedigree.
Bishop a Question Mark: The wrist injury aside, Ben Bishop had one of the best seasons by a goaltender in 2013-14. If he can get healthy, and is able to play at his established level, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be on par with the Canadiens in the goaltending department. If he cannot play, Montreal is going to have a major edge.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a superior possession team. They have the puck more often in the opposing team's zone, meaning they have a clear edge in play most games. Extra Skater has the Tampa Bay Corsi-for percentage at five-on-five in the league's top 12, with Montreal in the bottom five overall.
Adam Gretz at About.com Hockey explains Corsi as:
Just like plus/minus, only instead of counting goals for and against it counts total shot attempts for and against.
It's also a pretty good measure of puck possession and how much time a team or player is spending in each end of the ice.
Using the Extra Skater data (linked to above), we can conclude that the Lightning have possession more often than Montreal. That is a big advantage—even in a short series.
Tampa Bay Will Win If...
The key for the Tampa Bay Lightning will be goaltending. They are a better team than Montreal at five-on-five, and they're equal on the power play. The Montreal Canadiens are a better penalty-killing team.
Ben Bishop's injury could be the story of the series. He is the best option for the Lightning, and the drop from Bishop to backup Anders Lindback is significant. It is possible untried Kristers Gudlevskis sees some action if Anders Lindback struggles.
Tampa Bay fans should be checking Bishop's injury status closely. He is the key to their playoff hopes.
Montreal Will Win If...
The key player for the Montreal Canadiens is Carey Price. He's an elite goaltender entering his prime, and Montreal has enough talent to win if the goaltending is superior.
Late-season additions like Tomas Vanek and Mike Weaver will also impact their chances. Canadiens fans should expect plenty of overtime games and one-goal wins, but Montreal could go deep this spring. Carey Price backstopped Team Canada to gold at the Sochi Olympics; does he have another championship run in him this season?
The injury to Ben Bishop could have a huge impact on this series. The Tampa Bay Lightning are a better team, but the difference isn't big enough to accommodate losing Bishop for any period of time.
Carey Price is not the best player in this series. That honor belongs to Steven Stamkos of the Lightning. The Montreal Canadiens have enough snipers—including Pacioretty and Vanek—to stay in games while Price weaves his magic.
Prediction: Montreal in seven.