Welcome ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, to the 2014 NHL playoffs. The second season is the gift from the hockey gods to all of us for enduring and believing the past seven months.
Wins, losses, overtime/shootout losses, goals, assists, penalty minutes, power play percentage, penalty kill efficiency, shots for, shots against, save percentage, goals against average; all of those statistics and all of those numbers amassed during the 2013-14 season by the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens are in the record books now. They're history; past tense, over, done with. We'll reference them to gauge what could be expected from each club, but the numbers have become irrelevant with the turning of the page. The process of becoming starts all over in this micron of a season. It is now the process of surviving.
Where the 82 game NHL season was a marathon, the gauntlet that stands before the Lightning and 15 other NHL teams is a mud run or an obstacle race, where the path forward is messy, treacherous, but a personal challenge worth undertaking.
While we've transitioned into a new process here, there are some things that remain exactly the same as we left them a few days ago: Ben Bishop is hurt; other players on the Lightning are battling injuries but pushing ahead (Valtteri Filppula, Ondrej Palat, and Sami Salo). Really, everyone is a little banged up at this point in the season, but the aforementioned injuries have led to losses in playing time before the season concluded.
In the regular season, the Bolts went 3-0-1 against the Canadiens, playing close games each time (with November 12th and December 28th contest going to the shootout and February 1st matchup ending in overtime.) The big difference between then and now is the status of the Lightning's goalie corps; Anders Lindback will be starting in net tonight for the Lightning while Ben Bishop continues to mend from his undisclosed upper-body injury (believed to be his elbow.) With seasonal statistics and reputations tied to both Lindy and Canadiens goalie Carey Price, the snap judgment for the match-up may be doom and gloom; Anders Lindback could never beat Carey Price in a competition this season.
Newsflash: Anders Lindback doesn't have to beat Carey Price, the skaters in front of him do. If the effort is there, if Bolts play responsibly both ways while peppering Price with shots (and getting a few past him), then you can start putting more pressure on Lindback to perform.
It's a team effort; I think fans took that for granted when Bishop would steal victories while the Bolts performed poorly in front of him. In the playoffs, stealing games with stellar goaltending alone is less likely. It happens, yes, but it's a total effort to move forward.
The Lightning finished the regular season with an 18.5% power play efficiency, good for 13th in the overall league standings. Montreal was a percentage point behind the Bolts with a 17.2% efficiency. Montreal's penalty kill, on the other hand, was dominant with an 85.1% kill rate, just about five points better than the Lightning's 80.7. While those numbers mean bupkis in the second season, they do give us an expectation that this game won't likely be won in special teams. Or, perhaps, special teams favors Montreal.... Though, I must note that all three of the Bolts tallies in their 3-1 victory on April 1st against Les Habitants de Montreal came on special teams - Ryan Callahan's power play goal, Tyler Johnson's short-handed goal and Alex Killorn's power play goal (on an empty net.) .
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