One of the intriguing things about this season’s playoffs is that once the play-in round is done, all the teams are going to be reseeded. That means the Tampa Bay Lightning can play any of the eight teams competing in the play-in round. Since the league didn’t respond to our idea of letting the higher seeds pick their opponent, we’re going to point out why the Lightning should want to play any of them.
Bulletin board material? Sure. Will opposing fans throw this in our faces should the Lightning somehow lose against their team? Probably. Possible jinx? If we believed in things like that. A little bit of fun as we wait for their opponent? Definitely.
Today’s first round victim: the Montreal Canadiens
Why the Lightning want to see them in the first round
After a quite solid start of the 2010’s when the Montreal Canadiens were one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference and played in later rounds of the NHL playoffs almost every year, the past five years have been pretty frustrating for Habs fans. During that time they made playoffs just once in the 2016-17 season, losing to the New York Rangers in the first round.
By the old format they wouldn’t have made the playoffs this year either and would have even miss the qualifying round of a new extended format if they lost the game against the Buffalo Sabres, which was originally scheduled on March 13, the day after the regular season had been paused.
According to the statistics, the Canadiens are a very comfortable opponent for the Bolts. During the last three season, the Lightning lost just twice to them in twelve games, including one overtime loss. This season the Lightning managed to sweep the season series between the two teams, outscoring their opponent 14-6.
Another intriguing aspect which has been fueling their games in recent years -the Sergachev/Drouin trade - has cooled off a little bit. While Jonathan Drouin is a still a very solid NHL player, he never reached that level that Lightning fans had hoped for, confirming the scepticism in him of the Lightning management. On the other side Mikhail Sergachev has become an important part of the Lightning roster, averaging more than 20 minutes per game and stepping up when Victor Hedman or Ryan McDonagh are injured.
Speaking of Sergachev, he might remember a fight against the Canadiens captain Shea Weber which happened during their last game on March 6.
Last time both teams met each other in playoffs in the second round of the 2015 NHL Playoffs. The Bolts won in six games, thanks to the Triplets line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov which had been especially brilliant during that Lightning playoff campaign.
Canadiens Regular Season
The Canadiens finished a shortened regular season at fifth place in the Atlantic Division with a 31-31-9 performance in 71 games of the season and .500 points percentage. The team have been in the low part of the standings for most of the regular season, suffering two separate eight-game winless streaks. They also stumbled into the pause on a three-game pointless streak.
Tomas Tatar and Brandan Gallagher led the team in goals, scoring 22 of them (while Gallagher played 11 fewer games than Tatar). Tatar also led the team in assists (39) and obviously in points (61), which was 14 more than Phillip Danault. Carey Price was their clear number one goalie, playing in 58 games, however his numbers are clearly showing that his better years have already passed. The former Hart Trophy winner had just a .909 save percentage and reached negative values in both GSAA and GSAx according to Evolving-hockey.com.
Nich Suzuki has become a pleasant surprise, playing in 71 games and scoring 41 points in them, earning a spot on the first power-play unit. On the other side Jesperi Kotkaniemi who played in 79 games during his first season after draft didn’t have successful season and even was sent to the AHL.
The main issue of the Montreal Canadiens remains their special units, especially their power-play unit which ranked 22nd in the whole league. The penalty-kill is not much better, showing just 19th percentage in the NHL.
However the Montreal Canadiens numbers at 5v5 are not horrible. They are second in the league in both CF% and xGF% losing only to the Vegas Golden Knights in this component, unfortunately their weak special units and poor goaltending neutralized this advantage.
As a i already mentioned before, the Lightning swept the season series 4-0-0:
10/15/2019 Lightning win on the road 3-1
12/28/2019 Lightning win at home 5-4
01/02/2020 Lightning win on the road 2-1
03/06/2020 Lightning win at home 4-0
Despite the result not every game were perfect for the Lightning. In their first meeting of the 2020 year, the Lightning allowed 65 attempts, forcing Andrei Vasilevskiy to make 38 stops. A couple of days before the Lightning had been trailing 0-2 after just 12 minutes of game, but the Bolts showed enough spirit to beat the opponent.
The most recent game in March was closer to perfect performance for the Lightning, who controlled the game in every aspect and shut down the Habs 4-0.
How things could go sideways
The Canadiens entering the 24-team tournament as the weakest team of the Eastern conference and don’t seem as a strong opponent; the only chance for them is trying to avoid lots of penalties and force the scenario as in the two games at the turn of the year when the Canadiens controlled the game everywhere, except the scoreboard.
They also have two experienced players in Shea Weber and Carey Price and while they have already passed their peak, experience might be significant in those games.
Bold Prediction if these two teams match-up
Given their season record, I'd easily bet on the Lightning winning this series in 4 or 5 games, however I don’t even think they will reach the first round at all.