Montreal Canadiens' Biggest Questions in Playoff Series vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Brandon DuBreuil@@brandondubreuilContributor IIIApril 15, 2014

Montreal Canadiens' Biggest Questions in Playoff Series vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Can P.K. Subban get the power play going?
    Can P.K. Subban get the power play going?USA TODAY Sports

    The Montreal Canadiens 2013-14 Stanley Cup playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning is set to begin. Game 1 will go off in Tampa on April 16. 

    The Habs will be looking to improve on last year's five-game exit at the hands of the Ottawa Senators. The team was embarrassed in 2013 and plans on a better showing this time around.

    The Canadiens and Lightning had a fairly even regular-season series in 2013. Tampa Bay did take three of the four games, but they all were tight affairs. Three of the games ended 2-1 via overtime or the shootout, while the fourth game was a 3-1 Tampa Bay win with an empty-net goal.

    On paper, this could go either way. If the Canadiens beat the Lightning, however, it will because they successfully dealt with the issues that were at hand before the series got under way. 

    Here are the Montreal Canadiens' five biggest questions in the playoff series versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

Can Montreal Score on the Power Play?

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    P.K. Subban
    P.K. SubbanDave Reginek/Getty Images

    Back in November, the Montreal Canadiens' power play was ranked second best in the NHL. It was scoring at a clip of 24.6 percent. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov looked unstoppable from the point. 

    Fast forward a few months, and Montreal's power play has fallen all the way to 19th in the league. It's now scoring at a rate of just 17.2 percent, which is worst among Eastern Conference playoff teams. 

    Its efficiency has slowly decreased from its peak in November, but the last couple of weeks have been rock bottom. 

    The power-play goalless streak has now reached eight games. The Canadiens are 0-of-23 during that span and three of their last 40. 

    Neither Subban nor Markov has recorded a power-play point since March 15. That was 14 games ago. 

    The power play is a serious problem. 

    Tampa Bay is a good defensive team with a great goalie. The Canadiens have struggled to score against the Lightning this season (just four goals in four games). They will need all the goals they can get. 

    Scoring on the power play will also make the Lightning think twice about getting overly physical with Montreal's smaller forwards. If the Canadiens' power play becomes a threat, Tampa Bay will be forced to back down from the physical game. 

    Montreal needs its power play to get back on track if it wants to beat the Lightning. 

The Health of Ben Bishop

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    Ben Bishop
    Ben BishopChris O'Meara

    While the health of Ben Bishop isn't exactly a question about the Montreal Canadiens, it is important enough to deserve its own slide in this article.

    Tampa Bay's star goaltender was injured after reaching to make a glove save during the April 8 game in Toronto. He appeared to damage his left wrist in the process, according to Mike Brehm of USA Today

    No firm date has been set for his return. Deidre Matthews of Sports Injury Alert reports that Bishop will be evaluated at the beginning of this week to see if he will be ready for the start of the series. 

    His availability will have a huge impact on this series. 

    He has had an incredible year and will likely be a Veniza Trophy finalist come June. He posted a 37-14-4 record, a 2.23 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage in 2013-14.

    He also seems to play some of his best hockey against the Canadiens. 

    Bishop was in goal for all four games against the Habs this season. He finished with three wins and one shootout loss, while allowing a grand total of four goals. He stopped 101 of the 105 shots that the Habs fired at him—good for a save percentage of .962. 

    If he can't go, the Lightning will likely turn to Anders Lindback. While he is coming off a final-game shutout of the Washington Capitals on April 13, he isn't as good as Bishop. 

    Lindback's 2013-14 stats include an 8-12-2 record, a 2.90 GAA and a .891 save percentage. 

    Bishop has the ability to steal games and could be the deciding factor in this series, if he plays. His health is the biggest question either team has heading into the first-round matchup. 

Line Combinations

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    Who will Tomas Plekanec play with?
    Who will Tomas Plekanec play with?Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    Alex Galchenyuk was injured in last week's game against the Chicago Blackhawks and has already been declared out for the first round at least. While he may not be a true impact player yet, his injury has created some issues with Michel Therrien's line combinations up front. 

    Montreal's first line is set in stone with David Desharnais centering Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek. After that it becomes a bit of a guessing game. 

    Using Montreal's line combinations from its last two games doesn't help predict its lines in Game 1. Lars Eller, who had missed the previous three games with the flu, will be back, according to Stu Cowen of Hockey Inside/Out

    Cowen also reports that Brandon Prust, who missed the final 12 regular-season games, could return but is still listed as day-to-day. Travis Moen did not practice with the team, which means he likely won't be ready for the first game. 

    Therrien is a constant line juggler and won't hesitate to shake things up once the series begins, but here are some possible combinations for Game 1. 

    Tomas Plekanec will center the second line and likely have Brendan Gallagher on his right. Rene Bourque is a strong option to replace Galchenyuk on the left side. 

    Lars Eller will center the third line and will probably see Brian Gionta on his right and Daniel Briere on his left. 

    That leaves Ryan White, Michael Bournival and Dale Weise to round out the fourth line, making Michael Blunden and George Parros healthy scratches. 

    If and when Prust and Moen return, they will be inserted into the lineup at the expense of whoever is not performing. Bourque, White and Bournival are the candidates to be scratched later in the series. 

    Those who follow the Canadiens know that only one thing is certain when it comes to the forward lines: They will not stay the same for any length of time. Line combinations are always a question with this team.  

Who Is the 6th Defenseman?

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    Will Douglas Murray play in Game 1?
    Will Douglas Murray play in Game 1?Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Montreal's defensive pairings have a bit more stability than the forward units, but there is still a big question: Who will be the sixth defenseman? 

    Montreal's top pairing consists of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin. The Russian duo will play heavy minutes against Tampa Bay's top line and will get to know Steven Stamkos very well. 

    The second pairing will be Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban. Gorges' return should help Subban be at his best. The veteran provides stability to the pairing, allowing Subban to take a few more risks than when his partner is Francis Bouillon. 

    Michel Therrien has options on the third pairing, with Mike Weaver, Douglas Murray, Jarred Tinordi and Francis Bouillon all in the mix. 

    Weaver has played excellent hockey since being acquired just before the trade deadline and seems like a lock on the right side of the third pairing. He is a plus-nine and has added seven points in 17 games with Montreal. 

    But who will play with him? 

    Even though he's been having trouble not getting kicked out of games recently, the best bet seems to be Murray. Therrien loves Murray's physical presence and shot-blocking abilities. He's also one of the team's top penalty-killing defensemen. 

    Tinordi and Bouillon will probably start the series in the press box but could find themselves inserted into the lineup in case of injury or poor play. 

Is Montreal Built to Be a Playoff Team?

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    Will Daniel Briere bring playoff experience to the Canadiens?
    Will Daniel Briere bring playoff experience to the Canadiens?Dave Reginek/Getty Images

    The Montreal Canadiens were completely dominated in last year's opening-round loss to the Ottawa Senators. Their three biggest flaws were exposed: 

    1. Their forwards were outplayed physically.
    2. They couldn't score at even strength. 
    3. They relied heavily on Carey Price. 

    Last year's team was obviously not ready to compete in the postseason. So will this year's squad be any different?

    Size-wise, the Canadiens are still a small team. The addition of Thomas Vanek and Dale Weise up front help, but the Canadiens still deploy four forwards who are less than 5'10" (Daniel Briere, David Desharnais, Brendan Gallagher and Brian Gionta). 

    The Canadiens will need to use their speed to draw penalties and then capitalize on the power play. That's the only way to stop bigger teams from taking liberties with smaller players. 

    In the 2013 playoffs, the Canadiens only scored six goals in their four losses. They'll need more this time around, and general manager Marc Bergevin has done well to address that need.

    Vanek's addition to the squad gives Montreal a truly elite top line for the first time in years. Tampa Bay will need to pay special attention to that line, which should create easier secondary scoring for the other lines. 

    Briere is a proven playoff performer and will look to make up for a disappointing first season in Montreal during the postseason. The 36-year-old has 109 career playoff points (50 G, 59 A) in 108 games. 

    Montreal continues to rely on Price. It's no secret that the team doesn't really stand a chance in the postseason without him.

    His injury derailed any hopes of a comeback in last year's first-round series. It would be a catastrophic situation for the Canadiens if Price were to get hurt this time around. 

    There are some differences to this year's squad when compared to the team that got destroyed in last year's playoffs. They are a little bigger and have the ability to score more goals, especially at even strength. The Canadiens will have to use these to their advantage if they hope to advance past the first round of the 2013-14 Stanley Cup playoffs.