2014 NHL playoffs preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
Regular season recaps
Nov. 12: Lightning 2, Canadiens 1 (SO)
Dec. 28: Canadiens 2, Lightning 1 (SO)
Feb. 1: Lightning 2, Canadiens 1 (OT)
April 1: Lightning 3, Canadiens 1
Keys to a Lightning victory
You gotta hand it to Tampa Bay. First it loses franchise player Steven Stamkos (broken leg) for much of the season, then captain Martin St. Louis departs with a bad case of hurt feelings. In spite of it all, the Lightning persevered thanks to a deep pool of properly developed young talent. Most of the kids came in as AHL champions, and that winning experience smoothed the transition of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn, among others. It doesn't fully prepare the lads for the NHL playoffs, of course, but the fact that many of them have won before as a group under coach Jon Cooper should help. Anders Lindback will start in net for the Bolts while Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop (3-0-1, 1.22 goals-against average against Montreal) nurses a sore wrist. Lindback was the NHL's First Star of the final week of the regular season, and he comes in hot (3-0-0 with a .067 GAA and .975 save percentage), but there are several reasons why he's the backup on this team, including concerns about his technical ability. He has little margin for error. Victor Hedman finally had his long-awaited breakthrough season and he has the ability to dominate at both ends of the ice, but it's in the defensive zone where he'll have to establish himself. The other end belongs to Stamkos. Tampa Bay boasts the fourth-best offense in the East, but he's the one player on either team who can change a game at any moment. He'll be motivated by missing much of the season, and by the C that he's wearing for the first time in the playoffs, but he'll have to be more consistent than he was down the stretch (two goals in his last eight games). And during the time of year when will trumps skill, and there aren't many players who can set that tone the way Ryan Callahan can. When the character of this team is challenged, the former captain of the Rangers can lead the way. When a shot has to be blocked, when emotions sag, when a puck battle has to be won, when a goal is needed in the dying minutes, Callahan will be there, shovel in hand, ready to dig deep.
Keys to a Canadiens victory
It has to boost Montreal's confidence to know what Carey Price is capable of in a big game. Not that the Habs didn't believe in their goalie before, but now that he's the author of two medal-round shutouts in Sochi, you have to think they come into this series with their chests puffed out. They should. Price has the experience now to bolster his team's confidence, and that gives him an edge over whoever Tampa Bay slots between the pipes. Blueliner P.K. Subban is coming off another big offensive season (10 goals, 43 assists) and can take over a game with his speed and playmaking ability, especially on the power play (more on that later). The trick for him, as always, is to minimize his mistakes and keep his game on the plus side of the ledger. Montreal boasts one of the league's hottest lines coming into the postseason -- Thomas Vanek, David Desharnais and 39-goal man Max Pacioretty -- and will be expected to carry the offense. The Canadiens have been more effective at five-on-five since that unit was put together, keeping the team afloat while the power play has struggled (we'll get to it). The Habs know what they're getting from their penalty kill. It hummed along at 85.1 percent, fourth best in the league, and could provide the margin of victory at some point during this series. Montreal just has to hope that its power play doesn't put the team in a hole at other times. The Canadiens enter the postseason on an 0-for-23 skid with the extra man -- eight games, including that 3-1 loss at Tampa on April 1. They went 0-for-4 on the power play in that one while the Bolts scored twice. Given how tightly all four of the regular-season games between the two teams played out, the ability to squeeze something out of the PP will be vital. Keep an eye on Brendan Gallagher. When he's not infuriating the Bolts, he could key Montreal's secondary scoring.
Canadiens in 6: All the regular-season numbers suggest that these two teams are well-matched opponents, but if Bishop misses even a single game in this series, the Price vs. Lindback factor swings the pendulum decisively in Montreal's favor.
Game 1: Apr. 16, @ Tampa Bay, 7pm (CBC, RDS, CNBC)
Game 2: Apr. 18 @ Tampa Bay, 7pm (CBC, RDS, CNBC)
Game 3: Apr. 20 @ Montreal, 7pm (CBC, RDS, NBCSN)
Game 4: Apr. 22 @ Montreal, 7pm (CBC, RDS, NHLN U.S.)
*Game 5: Apr. 24 @ Tampa Bay, 7pm (CBC, RDS, CNBC)
*Game 6: Apr. 27 @ Montreal, time TBD, (CBC, RDS, NBCSN)
*Game 7: Apr. 29 @ Tampa Bay, time TBD (CBC, RDS)