Much of the discussion of this Atlantic Division finals series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens will center on the "rematch" narrative following the Habs' 4-game, first round sweep of the Lightning a season ago.
Game 1 is Friday at Bell Centre, and the Lightning and Habs are very different teams from a season ago. The Bolts managed total regular season dominance over the Habs in 2014-15, outscoring them 21-8 and out-attempting them 247-167 with five wins in five games.
The Lightning enjoyed an on-paper advantage vs. the Habs last year, too, however. So who has the advantage in 2015?
If there is one area we can expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to enjoy a huge advantage, this is it. Both the Habs and Bolts feature talented, deep rosters. But Michel Therrien has been suppressing skilled groups in the NHL for years. The Habs work in straight lines; pucks out, pucks deep, forecheck, grind, cycle. Therrien does not emphasize the speed, skill, carry-in game that Jon Cooper has employed to great success with the Lightning.
First, the numbers from the regular season.
(All numbers via War on Ice and Puckalytics)
|Corsi For %||53.0% (4th)||48.5% (23rd)|
|Fenwick For %||53.1% (3rd)||48.9% (21st)|
|Shots For %||53.9% (3rd)||48.8% (20th)|
|Scoring Chances For %||53.8% (2nd)||47.8% (24th)|
|PDO||101.01 (6th)||101.61 (2nd)|
This demonstrates a marked difference from the first round series with the Detroit Red Wings, who were an elite shot suppression team that rivaled the Lightning in ability to control the puck and out-attempt, out-shoot, and out-chance their opposition. The Habs failed to do all of these things with regularity.
The Habs are slightly better when rated on shots-on-goal and Fenwick than Corsi, but are still easily one of the worst puck possession teams remaining in the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning should be able to expose this with their speed and skill, finding the neutral zone a bit easier to navigate than against Detroit. Long cycle shifts in the Habs end should, in theory, be fairly easy to come by. The Habs are willing to sacrifice possession, instead trying to limit their opponents to the perimeter and rely on their goaltender to keep them in games.
Edge: Tampa Bay Lightning
Both teams boast a deep forward corps with a lot of skill up front and one truly elite scorer (Steven Stamkos and Max Pacioretty), though Stamkos is still without a goal in these playoffs.
Tampa Bay was the most prolific offense in the league this year, however, as Stamkos and his line were flanked by the outstanding line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov and quality contributions from throughout the lineup.
|Goals Per Game||3.16 (1st)||2.61 (20th)|
|Shots Per Game||29.6 (19th)||28.5 (25th)|
|5v5 Shooting %||9.03% (1st)||7.93% (12th)|
|5v5 Corsi For/60||55.94 (8th)||54.07 (19th)|
Montreal converted on a decent amount of their shots, but struggled in a big way to put pucks on net in the first place. Shot generation hasn't been a problem for them in the playoffs, though, as they fired nearly 40 shots on goal per game against the Ottawa Senators (with some score effects in play there, of course).
Overall, each team's top 4 goal scorers from the regular season match-up pretty well; both teams had one guy over 35 goals (aforementioned Stamkos and Pacioretty) and three more forwards over 20 goals each. The depth favors the Lightning, though, who had eight more skaters reach at least 9 goals to just five for the Habs.
It's a playoff cliche, but if the top units neutralize each other, secondary scoring may be a big difference in the series. If so, that's another area leaning in Tampa Bay's favor.
Edge: Tampa Bay Lightning
The biggest difference for both of these teams between the iterations that met in last year's playoffs and today's teams is the blue line. The Lightning dumped some of their slower blue liners (Radko Gudas, Eric Brewer, Sami Salo) and injected guys either with better footspeed (Mark Barberio, Nikita Nesterov, Braydon Coburn), better puck-moving ability (Jason Garrison), or both (Anton Stralman).
Jon Cooper seemed indecisive with his D-pairings in the first round, opting sometimes for an 11-7 alignment with Nesterov seeing spare even-strength minutes, and sometimes for a more traditional 12-6 alignment with three set pairs. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are the best D-pair in this series if they're used together, and Jason Garrison and Braydon Cobrun seemed to figure a few things out towards the end of Round 1, though their coverage in transition leaves something to be desired and could be problematic with Montreal's team speed.
After adding Tom Gilbert last season, the Habs added another underrated right-side guy in Jeff Petry, who through these playoffs has been one of the Habs' best defensemen. Montreal is deep on the blue line, but perhaps a bit vulnerable on the left side with Nathan Bealieau out; Andrei Markov's footspeed was never great and he's 36 now, Alexei Emelin is basically a pylon and they've got Gilbert playing his offside.
P.K. Subban is a Norris finalist and one of the game's best defensemen, and when he's on the ice Montreal is always dangerous. Attacking the other pairings (or Subban's left side partner) will have to be a point of emphasis for the Bolts.
These two teams bad on the power play.
If you thought Tampa Bay's power play was pitiful and pathetic and horrifyingly frustrating going 2/30 in the first round, consider that the Montreal Canadiens managed a worse percentage, converting on just 1 of their 20 opportunities vs. the Ottawa Senators.
It's baffling that two teams with so much superstar offensive talent could struggle to do any damage at all with the man advantage, but here we are. From the regular season:
|5v4 CF/60||75.73 (29th)||95.44 (19th)|
|5v4 SH%||16.92% (1st)||11.22 (18th)|
|4v5 CA/60||104.94 (28th)||93.16 (11th)|
|4v5 SV%||89.10 (6th)||89.46 (4th)|
The Habs were middle of the pack on both units during the regular season; Carey Price is outstanding, even when shorthanded, and their penalty kill unit was borderline top-10 in terms of shot prevention. Their power play wasn't great, not generating many shots or converting on a particularly high percentage, so the Lightning get a bit of reprieve there after facing a lethal Detroit 5v4 unit in Round 1.
As for the Bolts, well, special teams is the one area of the game where the Lightning play like ... well, the Habs. They give up shots and chances at will on their PK and pray that Ben Bishop can make saves, and their power play is laughably bad at shot generation. They lived on unsustainable percentages from the regular season that crashed during Round 1 and survived only because of some decent 5v5 play and a generous helping of luck. Special teams continue to be a major concern for Tampa Bay; Montreal's aren't great, but by virtue of being "not Tampa" they get the edge here.
Edge: Montreal Canadiens
I could embed some nice tweets or videos or charts or stats. I won't. But a few thoughts:
Anders Lindback's name will be invoked quite a bit by broadcasters and beat writers this week. Try to remember that, while Lindback was bad, it's not as if a healthy Ben Bishop would have drastically altered the fate of last year's team. The Lightning were bad up and down the lineup and were unable to crack through the Habs' neutral zone pressure. Will that change with Jon Cooper and co. a year older, wiser?
Still, Bishop offers a much more reliable and efficient option in net. He will stop more pucks than Lindback did a season ago, barring a major meltdown.
Ben Bishop is pretty good; Carey Price is truly elite, perhaps the best in the world. Ultimately this is where Montreal will win or lose this series. If Price continues to be stupid good, none of the stuff written above this matters. He's that good and he can have that big of an effect. Yes, the Lightning got to him in the regular season but that's a very, very small sample. We really don't know if that was because the Lightning have a magic formula or if it was just random. The Bolts already did a fine job of making Petr Mrazek look like Dominik Hasek, so anything can happen.
We'll find out soon enough.
Edge: Montreal Canadiens
What do we look for in this series?
First off, can Tampa Bay's big guns finally get on the board (against Carey Price, no less)? Tyler Johnson had 6 goals in Round 1 but other top scorers from the regular season had zero. Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman ... these guys need to start putting pucks in the net, and quickly.
The possession numbers favor Tampa Bay but all it takes are a few defensive lapses for Montreal to make you pay. Max Pacioretty is a terrific scorer, and the Habs have a handful of scorers who will finish any Grade A scoring chances that Tampa Bay gives up.
Again, the key for the Lightning is to keep the game at 5v5 as much as possible and find ways to overwhelm the Habs with speed through the neutral zone to keep the play in Carey Price's end of the rink; they can't get frustrated if they haven't scored by their 10th, or 15th, or 20th shot on goal, either. The Habs will give up more. Stick to the process and they'll win more than they lose -- that's what's worked all season long.
Prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning in six