The Tampa Bay Lightning clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals with a dominant 4–1 win over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6.
Delivering their best effort of these playoffs, the Bolts leveraged their speed, offensive depth and an impressive performance by goaltender Ben Bishop to send their divisional rivals packing. Nikita Kucherov scored a pair of goals, including the icebreaker 15:35 into the first period. Tampa Bay is now 6-0 this postseason when it scores first.
The Lightning know they’ll be skating in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, but will have to wait until Wednesday night to find out who, and where, they’ll be playing. They’ll host the opener at Amalie Arena if the Capitals knock off the Rangers in Game 7, but will be off to New York if the Blueshirts take it.
Here are three takeaways from the series clincher.
1. The Lightning stars struck.
After making this series far more interesting than it should have been by dropping two straight, the Lightning needed their big dogs to pull the cart in Game 6. Tampa Bay’s stars delivered in a big way.
Steven Stamkos clearly isn’t 100%, but the Lightning’s captain still turned in his best performance of the playoffs in this one. He broke Montreal’s back with a beautiful goal early in the second period, beating Jeff Petry with a slick toe drag and then firing a BB that rocketed past Carey Price high glove. It was the sniper’s third goal of the playoffs and second in as many games, suggesting that he’s at least starting to feel more like himself. The time off between this game and the opener of the next round could be exactly what he needs to return to top shape.
The Bolts also got an excellent game from the Triplets. Kucherov chipped in an assist to go with his two-goal effort, Ondrej Palat went one and one, and Tyler Johnson generated several chances with his speed and net drive. That line has accounted for 17 of Tampa’s 34 playoff goals to this point. With Stamkos slowly finding his form, this group will be a matchup nightmare for whoever meets up with them in the next round.
It was a solid night too from Bishop, who finally got the yips out of his game and delivered the controlled excellence that was missing earlier in the series. This was more than just making big stops. He was handling the puck like Martin Brodeur in his prime. Not only was he able to make plays to set up the offense in transition, but his ability to corral the pucks that Montreal sent deep before their forecheckers arrived put the brakes on their attack. With his early struggles behind him, Bishop looks like a netminder who can carry this team all the way.
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2. The Habs revealed themselves.
The Canadiens clearly exhausted themselves in extending this series to six games. After a halfway decent first period, they played as if they were dragging parachutes the rest of the way. Give credit to the Lightning, who recognized those dead legs and set a pace that Montreal just couldn’t match. But that wasn’t the main reason why the series ended on Tuesday night. Nor was the latest in a long string of bad bounces: the P.A Parenteau shot that rang off the post just before Palat pushed the lead to 3–0 in the second period.
Ultimately, this was just Montreal being Montreal. This was a team that was lousy in terms of possession and struggled to score all season long. No surprise then that they managed just 12 goals in their first round win over Ottawa and 13 in their loss to the Lightning.
The Bolts played keep-away with the puck all night long because that's what the Canadiens allowed them to do all year. On a night that should have been defined by their desperation, the Habs settled just 19 shots, most of them from safe distance.
It was telling to see how little pushback they mustered, especially after allowing the opening goal. The Lightning landed 10 of the next 11 shots on net, with the last being Stamkos' dagger. Once that rocket eluded Price, what little fight the Canadiens had in them was gone.
3. What next for Les Habitants?
Any season that ends without the Stanley Cup is a disaster in Montreal, but this short stroll through the playoffs couldn’t have surprised anyone who paid close attention to the team. Despite their 110-point season, this wasn’t an elite group. If not for a superlative season from Price, the Habs might have needed a wild card berth to make the playoffs.
While there are several key pieces in place, this team needs significant changes to take that next step needed to become a legitimate contender. First and foremost is a center capable of driving the top line. Neither Tomas Plekanec or David Desharnais is a good fit for the job. They also could use at least two top-six caliber wingers who are capable of lighting the lamp. No one expects GM Marc Bergevin to fill all those holes over the summer, but he’ll be watched carefully to see how he intends to upgrade his club.
The faithful also will be interested to hear what he has to say about the future of coach Michel Therrien. Despite having led the team to an Atlantic Division title, there’s a groundswell of discontent with him and the frustrating limitations of his defense-first system. His inability to match the adjustments made by Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, or even motivate his troops to meet their opponent’s intensity in this must-win game, will only fire up the pro-coaching change crowd.
Expect speculation to center around the availability of pending free agent Mike Babcock. The Red Wings/Team Canada bench boss is shopping his services around the league through May 25 before deciding on his future in Detroit, and if any job could convince him to leave his comfort zone it would most likely be the Canadiens. Babcock played at Montreal’s McGill University and is said to have studied some French in recent years, so he has ties to the area and a desire to improve an important skill set. It’d be a coup for the organization to land him and you have to think the job would appeal to his desire to compete in a high-profile setting.
The next few days should be interesting.