Admittedly, looking for areas where the Montreal Canadiens need to improve against the Tampa Bay Lightning in their first-round series is like begging for spare change while wearing a flashy suit and tie. You’re bound to get a whole lot of nothing and maybe a few dirty stares.
It’s to be expected, though, after the Habs were able to not just steal home-ice advantage but also rob the Lightning blind of it by taking not one but two games to open the series. One can even make a case that Montreal didn’t steal anything as much as take it with authority.
They followed up a near perfect road effort in Game 1, in which they outshot Tampa 44-25, with arguably an even greater defensive effort in Game 2, giving up just a single goal. Carey Price, who looked just OK in Game 1, also rebounded nicely.
They’re also doing it at the other end of the ice, getting goals at even strength after scoring just 136 times five-on-five (26th in the league) all season. Already, they’ve scored as many times as they did in five games against the Ottawa Senators last spring.
Hell, when even Rene Bourque is actively finding ways to get on the scoreboard—twice in one game (!)—you know things are going well. When Montreal’s power play is clicking—finally—after just plain not in the final eight games of the season...well, when all these things are happening at once, this team looks damn near unstoppable.
So, that’s why saying the Habs can stand to improve is nitpicky at the very least and likely to be thought of as grasping at straws to find something wrong with the team by the majority of readers here. But bear with me.
In Game 1, the Habs twice went up by a goal in the third period, but had to win in overtime. Two days later, with the Habs up 2-0 in Game 2, they had a chance to put the game away midway through the third period when Alex Killorn got called for holding—or, more accurately, manhandling, or, much more accurately, half-manhandling—David Desharnais. However, despite them throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the Lightning net, nothing stuck.
Again, this isn’t meant to deride the power play. Really, after they finally got one on the man advantage on a beautiful redirect by Desharnais to open the scoring, Montreal’s special teams were working like a well-oiled machine. The power play looked incredible in all honesty, doing absolutely everything but scoring to bury Tampa and go up 3-0.
However, the Habs let that opportunity slip away.
Instead, they had to rely on second-rate goaltending by Anders Lindback soon thereafter, when Brendan Gallagher scored on a solo effort from an ugly angle, effectively chasing him from the Tampa net. Then Bourque scored his second, preying on a cold Kristers Gudlevskis to put the game on even colder ice.
It’s kind of pointless to play the “would’ve, could’ve” game and argue that if Ben Bishop had been in net, neither of those goals would have gone in, because he wasn’t. He also seems quite a ways away from returning, so Tampa will just have to deal with the quality of goaltending it's been getting up to this point.
However, as opportunistic as Gallagher and Bourque were to capitalize on flawed goaltending, the team as a whole lacked that killer instinct. And that’s been a problem all year long. Truth be told, it's a problem that goes back years, plural: Montreal’s inability to close out games properly.
Nobody’s going to sit here and say with a straight face that the all the pressure is on Montreal now, because it’s simply not true. It’s Tampa that’s in the unenviable, must-win position entering Game 3. And it’s the Habs who are in quite a relatively unique, impressive one, having won two road games to open up the series.
It’s only relatively unique, though, because they have been here before, and recently too. Since the 2004-05 lockout, the Habs have held two-game leads twice as the lower seed. Back in 2005-06 against the Carolina Hurricanes and in 2010-11 against the Boston Bruins, both times in the first round. Care to guess how those series turned out?
Of course not, because if you’re on this site, as a Habs fan, you probably already know. Montreal ultimately lost both series, with both opponents going on to win the Stanley Cup. That last fact is probably of little solace to you. It probably even twists the knife in a little deeper, as time doesn’t necessarily heal old wounds.
It isn’t all bad, though, because Montreal can learn from the embarrassment, shame and heartbreak from both of those series and put it to good use here.
Nothing is guaranteed, but one has to assume that if the Habs are able to play as well as they have up until this point, they’ll be OK. After all, back in 2011, Montreal was arguably only able to jump out to the 2-0 series lead and eventually force seven games because of Price. Back in 2006, he wasn’t even Montreal’s goaltender. It was Cristobal Huet (and that didn't turn out that hot, with Cory Stillman scoring a series-winning goal on a very stoppable shot).
Meanwhile, in the here and now, they’ve played a dominant team game, even holding a 55.9 percent edge in Fenwick close in all situations, according to stats compiled by Extra Skater. Five-on-five, they only had a 47.9 percent rating during the regular season.
Whether or not this level of play is sustainable is up for debate, but fans will find out Sunday night when the two teams take to the Bell Centre ice for Game 3 at 7 p.m. ET. The Habs will undoubtedly show up to the game in suits and ties, and they’d better realize now that nothing will be handed to them come puck drop. Otherwise, they might just lose their stranglehold on this series and maybe the whole entire thing if they’re not careful.