What to Expect When You're Expecting> Brian Bannan
A late goal by Braydon Coburn punched Tampa’s ticket to the second round and a return engagement with the Montreal Canadiens. The last playoff battle between these teams ended with a Max Pacioretty power play marker clinching a 4-0 series sweep for the Habs. With the Habs and Bolts set to renew acquaintances, let’s break down this match up.
The 2014 Habs cruised to an easy first round win against Tampa. It was an appetizer for the main course that would be Habs-Bruins series. Montreal was able to take advantage of the Bolts’ shaky goaltending, plodding defense and lack of depth up front. Tampa GM Steve Yzerman went to work this off-season and at the trade deadline to address these weaknesses. If Montreal is to prevail in this series, they will have to beat a significantly improved Lightning squad.
Last year, Ben Bishop went down with an injury late in the regular season. Rene Bourque and the Habs feasted on his replacements Lindback and Gudlevskis. Ginette Reno barely had time to grab her seat before the Habs were whistling shots behind this duo. The Tampa defense consisted of luminaries such as Aulie, Barbeiro, Brewer, Kostka and Radko Gudos. While possessing size and a physical edge, this group was overwhelmed by Montreal’s speed and puck pursuit.
This summer Yzerman added the skilled and underrated Anton Stralman and PP specialist Jason Garrison. Coburn was added at the trade deadline. They joined the sublime Vicor Hedman and 3rd pair Matt Carle and Andrej Sustr. This Tampa D is physically imposing. Hedman, Garrison, Sustr and Coburn are all over 6’3 and 220 pounds. Hedman and Sustr are 6’6 and 6’7 respectively. That is in socks not skates. Hedman is developing into one of the top defensemen in the NHL. He is able to impose his will at both ends of the ice and the Habs will have to account for him joining the rush late.
Up front, Tampa Bay said goodbye to Teddy Purcell, BJ Crombeen and Nate Thompson. Brian Boyle and Brendon Morrow were brought in to fortify the 4th line. They bring a physical edge and plenty of playoff experience.
The biggest addition, however, has been skilled Russian sniper Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov teams with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to form “the triplets”. This is arguably the best line in the NHL. Johnson was absolutely Tampa’s best forward against Detroit. He was dangerous in the ’14 playoffs, particularly on the PK, but he has taken his game to another level. This trio combined for 74 goals and 200 points during the regular season. Not bad for a “2nd line”.
The nominal first line is Steven Stamkos between Ryan Callahan and Alex Killorn. Callahan is the Bolts answer to Brendan Gallagher, a gritty, heart and soul player; love him on your side, loathe him on the opposition. Stamkos may have struggled to score against the Wings, but he is an elite goal scorer and in the conversation for guys you would start a franchise with.
The 3rd line features the underrated Valterri Fippula. A slick skating former Red Wing, he adds a nice two way game and almost 50 points to the line up.
Ben Bishop provides the backbone for this offensive juggernaut. At 6’7 and 215, there is not much twine to spot when bearing down on this guy. He has had spurts of stellar play in the NHL including a Vezina nomination in 2014. This season was not his best and he looked mortal at points in the Detroit series, but he will be a much bigger challenge, literally, for Montreal shooters this time around.
Keys to the Series
Seen Stamkos? While the Habs may be able to shut down either the triplets or the Stamkos line, keeping both off the score sheet will be tough. I would like to see Eller and his line get the Triplets assignment. I think Eller can skate with them and may be able to introduce a physical element to hamper either their flow or their will. Plekanec gets the call against Stamkos. He is the superstar whisperer. He can chirp and chop and may be able to disrupt #91’s focus. He has had success against Krecji, Crosby and others in past series. Tampa’s greatest strength is their scoring ability. Which brings us to our next match up.
Price vs, Bishop. The reality is Price is going to have to steal a game and probably two for Montreal to prevail. Bishop is tasked with being solid. If he shows a chink in his armour, will that doubt be enough to undo this young Lightning team? Tampa has been amped to play Montreal all season. The Habs will now have a chance over 7 games to match their intensity. Ultimately, the better goalie will see his team advance. Price has the tougher opposition.
Who can hold serve? Home ice will be key. Montreal has a weary Tampa team coming in in game 1. Can they steal the opener? Also, like the old Adams division classics, games 3 and 4 will be played back to back. The team that takes game 3 will have a real chance to ride that momentum to a victory in game 4. Montreal played Price in their season finale to lock up home ice. Game 7 will be a tough mountain for a visiting team to climb in the Bell Centre. Each team is tasked with winning its home games. Who can break serve?
Your best players must be your best players. Pacioretty, Plekanec,, Price and Subban are going to have to bring their ‘A’ games. Subban was good in the Ottawa series. Much, much more is needed from the two forwards. Galchenyuk, Desharnais, Eller and Gallagher will have to chip in as well. Zetterberg didn’t score vs. Tampa, his team lost. If Stamkos can’t score against Montreal, his team will not be able to survive another such drought. Conversely, if this series ends with Brian Flynn atop Montreals’ scoring leaders, chances are the Habs will be booking tee times.
Bishop vs. Price
Hedman vs. Subban
Callahan vs. Gallagher
Stamkos vs. Pacioretty
Goalies, stud defensemen, heart and soul right wingers and snipers, this series will feature some dynamite match ups. Each player will be looking for their chance to put their stamp on this series. This is where legacies are made and championship runs are either made or are ended. A trip to the final four awaits the team with the superior resolve.
So who wins? Tampa wins if this series looks anything like the regular season. Their GM took an honest appraisal of where they stood last year and made some significant upgrades. They can skate and score and have been a top ten team all season long. The Bolts boast solid depth at both forward and defense. Their tender can be very good. Despite finishing second overall and owning home ice, Montreal is definitely an underdog.
That being said, this has been the season of Price. If I told you Price would steal 2 games, Bishop was going to have one poor outing and Montreal would outplay them for a win, would you ask if I was taking crazy pills? Or would you shrug your shoulders and say, “Yeah, I could see that”. This Habs team has been doubted all season long. Many picked Ottawa to take round one despite Montreal’s 110 point regular season. The analytics department has been waiting for the other shoe to drop all season long. Their issues are a lack of goal scoring and a seeming indifference to winning the nightly Corsi battle. Their strengths are a tight knit team that believes in itself and can handle adversity. This Habs squad is greater than the sum of their parts. They have Carey Price standing tall between the pipes and this season, I cannot bet against that.
Habs in 7.