5 Keys to a Montreal Canadiens' 1st-Round Victory vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
At this point, the Montreal Canadiens know little else aside from the fact that they will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. That, at least, is certain beyond a shadow of a doubt.
However, home ice is still up for grabs. Whom they will face in the Tampa net following an injury to starter Ben Bishop is another major question mark.
Will Lightning forward Ryan Malone be available after being arrested on Saturday morning for cocaine possession, according to TSN.ca? Who knows? Who cares, perhaps more accurately, as he has just five goals and 10 assists this season.
In all seriousness, nothing is for certain in this first-round series. With victory far from guaranteed, here are the top five keys in order for the Habs to advance:
5. Home Ice
Home-ice advantage takes the fifth spot on this list for the sole reason that in Montreal’s season series against Tampa, the visitor has won three out of four times.
That being said, it’s hard to imagine the Habs not wanting that extra edge of the Bell Centre crowd behind them for one more game—although, it would explain the 2-0 egg they laid against the New York Islanders of all teams last week (in Montreal, no less).
Montreal now faces a must-win situation again the New York Rangers—a decidedly better team—on Saturday night in the last game of the regular season. Even if the Canadiens win, the Lightning can still clinch home ice the next day by beating the Washington Capitals.
Home ice is not necessarily the be all and end all, especially seeing as the Habs have more road victories (23) than home victories (22) this season. Still, Tampa has a much better home record (25-10-6) than road record (20-17-3). As a result, look for home ice to be a factor one way or another when these two teams meet next week.
4. Special Teams
Neither team’s power play is especially intimidating, with Tampa clicking at 18.6 percent and Montreal at 17.4 percent. However, what can realistically help decide a victory or two in the first round is the penalty kill.
The Habs have one of the best in the league, ranked fifth at 85.0 percent. The Lightning? One of the worst, ranking 23rd at 80.7 percent.
Consider this: Montreal has been shorthanded 286 times this season. That averages out to 3.53 times per game. Over a potential seven-game series, that comes out to 24.7 hypothetical penalty kills.
Assuming the Habs are able to maintain their prowess when down a man, that translates into 21 successful kills. Were the Habs to boast Tampa’s penalty-killing percentage, they would kill 20 power plays.
It’s admittedly not much—hence the fourth spot on this list. However, seeing as three of the four games between these two teams this season went into overtime—and two of those went to shootouts—just one additional goal can make a difference.
The Habs have already succumbed to the injury bug with Alex Galchenyuk out for the first round. After last spring, Montreal fans can only pray that’s as bad as it gets, as the Habs had five separate forwards injured (with defenseman Alexei Emelin unavailable heading into the playoffs) by the Ottawa Senators.
What had been their strength all season long, their depth turned into a major weakness pretty quickly against Ottawa. And one year later, the Habs find themselves in a similarly precarious position.
While the acquisition of Thomas Vanek helps a great deal in the depth department, it’s the addition of players like George Parros (6’5”, 224 lbs), Dale Weise (6’2”, 210 lbs) and Douglas Murray (6’3”, 240 lbs) that really matters here.
General manager Marc Bergevin obviously made a conscious effort to prevent the Habs from being pushed around any longer. However, looking at Tampa’s roster, specifically its defense, it may not be enough. Tampa boasts the likes of Victor Hedman (6’6”, 233 lbs) and Andrej Sustr (6’8”, 225 lbs). That’s not even mentioning the short(er)-in-stature-but-big-on-hits Radko Gudas (6’0”, 204 lbs).
Tampa is a skilled team but one that is far from small, and the Habs had better be able to withstand the physical punishment if they hope to move on—especially seeing as if they do, their next opponents could quite possibly be the Boston Bruins.
2. Potential Tampa Loss of Ben Bishop
Whereas the Habs are left to cope without Galchenyuk, the Lightning are much worse off with goaltender Ben Bishop out with an upper-body injury.
After leaving last week’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Bishop’s future this season is shrouded in uncertainty. According to Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones, Tampa isn’t sure how much time Bishop will miss. If it’s the entire first round, there may not be a second for the Lightning.
The significance of Bishop’s absence, should the goalie indeed be out for that first round, cannot be understated. He’s a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate with a 2.23 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
Considering backup Anders Lindback has a 3.05 GAA and .888 save percentage, the injury could potentially mean the end of the series almost as soon as it begins—that is, were it not for the fact that the Lightning are an incredibly resilient group.
They lost Steven Stamkos to injury for 45 games. They also traded away the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner, Martin St. Louis. Through it all, they’ve continued to post victories. Perhaps this is just the latest hurdle for them to jump en route to a Cinderella Stanley Cup run.
However, what one must also consider is this: Since the Olympics ended, Bishop hasn’t exactly been at his best. In the 18 games before his injury, he had allowed 51 goals on 526 shots (.903 save percentage). Perhaps most significantly, Tampa was 9-6-3 in those games.
Maybe, just maybe, they don’t need him to beat the Canadiens. However, that doesn’t mean goaltending won’t be a major factor in this series.
1. Carey Price
On the subjects of injuries and goaltending, the Habs were also without Carey Price in last spring’s deciding Game 5 against the Ottawa Senators. He had injured himself in the previous game, leaving the net to Peter Budaj, who proceeded to allow six goals on 29 shots in, obviously, a losing bid.
Granted, Price hadn’t fared much better in the series up to that point, allowing 13 goals in just four games. However, he had also been struggling heading into the postseason, allowing 27 goals on 188 shots against (.856 save percentage) in the previous eight games.
In sharp contrast to his performance down the stretch last season and Bishop’s this season, Price is on fire. In the 10 games he’s played since the Olympics ended, Price is 7-3 with 25 goals against on 328 shots (.924 save percentage).
In fact, all season long, Price has been almost as realistic a Vezina candidate as Bishop. He is 33-20-5 with a 2.36 GAA and .925 save percentage. The last time Price was putting together a season this good was in 2010-11. And that postseason, he almost single-handedly led the Habs to a seven-game, first-round upset of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
Year to year, Price has always been an inconsistent goalie, but when he’s on, you can’t really turn him off. He’s notorious for choking come playoff time, but during that 2010-11 postseason, he posted a 2.11 GAA and .934 save percentage.
While he may have to be that good again against the eighth-best offense in the league, every single sign says he will be. That could soon very well mean stop signs as well.