With all due respect to Coach Guy Boucher and the 2010-11 Tampa Bay Lightning team that went on such a great playoff run, the nucleus of the current run of success for the club debuted in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens. Six players (Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov) all played in the 2014 first round match-up against the Canadiens.
While things didn’t work out great for that team (the Bolts were swept) it kicked off a run of success few franchises have been able to match. Including the 2014 team, they have made the playoffs in seven of eight years (missing one year by a point despite not having Stamkos or Bishop), they’ve made the Stanley Cup Final in three of those seasons and the Eastern Conference/Semi-Finals an astonishing five times.
As Matt pointed out last week, we are living in the Golden Age of Lightning hockey and the team is now on the precipice of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. They would join the 2015-16/2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins as the only team to win consecutive Cups in the Cap Era. They are only the third team, after the Penguins and the 2007-08/2008-09 Detroit Red Wings, to make the Final Round two seasons in a row. Pretty impressive.
Standing in their way are the Montreal Canadiens, the feel-good, underdog story of the playoffs. Every year it seems a team fires its coach, limps into the playoffs and then goes on a run. Toronto was supposed to wipe them off the ice with their high-powered offense - it didn’t happen. Surely they were no match for Connor Hellebuyck and the Jets, wrong. Canadiens swept them. The North wasn’t a great division so there was no way they were going to beat Vegas - the best team in the West. Welllll....here we are.
So, despite most of the pundits and models leaning the Lightning’s way - this isn’t going to be an easy series. While the story line may be Carey Price and an opportunistic offense, the Habs are a tough team to play against. Much like the Lightning they like to score early and hold onto the lead. They’ve scored 14 first period goals (second to the Lightning’s 15) and are 7-0 when leading after the first period. The Bolts on the other hand are 6-2 when leading after 20 minutes.
When the Bolts score the first goal they are 12-2 and Montreal is 11-2. Tampa Bay has yet to win when surrendering the first goal (0-4) while Montreal is 1-3. So yeah, the first goal is going to be important. By taking early leads, both teams can settle into their defensive systems and feast off of the other team making mistakes when they press too hard.
The Habs do a pretty good job of spreading their even strength scoring out with contributions coming from the third line (Jesperi Kotkaniemi - 5 goals, 2 assists), the second line (Nick Suzuki -3 goals, 4 assists and Cole Caulfield - 2 goals, 4 assists) with the fourth line and first lines chipping in as well.
Caulfield may be a rookie, but he’s been a revelation in the playoffs. After being scratched early against Toronto he’s been unleashed and given Montreal a little speed and creativity that they needed for that second line. Think of him as a smaller, newer Brayden Point. That line (with Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli) will give the Bolts fits throughout the series and will be key to Montreal staying in this series.
While not quite as annoying as the Islanders fourth line, the Canadiens checking line of Eric Staal, Corey Perry (yes, another Stanley Cup Final against Perry), and maybe Joel Armia (he’s in COVID protocol as of Sunday) is a grind to play against.
That’s all nice, but Carey Price is the key that this team revolves around. He isn’t the only reason they’re in the final round, but he is the main reason. This series is going to be a showcase of the two best goaltenders in the playoffs. Lets look at the numbers in all situations:
Andrei Vasilevskiy - .935% (First)
Carey Price - .934% (Second)
Goals Saved Above Average:
Vasilevskiy - 9.25 (First)
Price - 7.98 (Second)
Goals Allowed Per 60
Vasilevskiy - 1.99 (Second)
Price - 2.02 (Third)
High-Danger Save %
Vasilevskiy - .890 (First - sorry Vitek Vanecek your one game doesn’t count)
Price - .875 (Second - again, Robin Lehner your three games isn’t enough)
These gentlemen are really, really good at their job. Goals are going to be at a premium throughout the series so special teams will come into play. The Lightning “only” converted at a 29.4% rate against the Islanders, dipping their playoff average to 37.7% in 53 opportunities. They will be going up against a Canadiens unit that has killed off 93.5% of their 46 times shorthanded (including all 25 power play chances for Winnipeg and Las Vegas).
Yes, Carey Price is a big reason for their success with his gaudy .952 SV% and 6.72 GSAA while the team is shorthanded, but the players in front of him are very structured and don’t allow many chances. They are also a threat to put one on the board as they lead the playoffs with 4 shorthanded goals.
Even if the Canadiens shut down the Lightning power play, the Bolts should have enough depth to take it to them at 5v5. As the Islanders found out, you may slow down Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, you can even knock them around a little, but you can’t stop them. With Anthony Cirelli finding his offense and the Yanni Gourde line doing their thing, it’s hard to see the Lightning losing this one. They may, but Montreal will have to play perfect hockey to win four times.
My prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning win in six.
Previous Playoff match-ups:
2004 Conference Semifinal - Lightning win 4-0
The Lightning swept the Canadiens to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in franchise history. Nikolai Khabibulin was outstanding in the series, posting a Game One shutout and allowing just five goals through the entire series. Vinnie Lecavalier had himself a series against his hometown team with five goals and two assists.
2014 First Round - Canadiens won 4-0
A decade later Montreal exacted their revenge by taking out the Bolts in four straight. Tampa Bay was shorthanded in net as Ben Bishop had been injured in the final days before the season ended. Anders Lindback and Kristers Gudlevskis combined for an .884 save percentage, which wasn’t good enough in a series where three games were decided by just one goal.
2015 Second Round - Lightning won 4-2
The two teams met in the second round the following season and it looked like it would be another sweep as the Bolts jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, including two wins on Montreal’s ice. The Habs pushed back with a 6-2 Game 4 win on Lightning ice, then Carey Price stopped 24 of 25 in a 2-1 Game 5 win. Game 6 was never in doubt as the Bolts scored the first three goals and Bishop stopped 18 of 19 to send the Lightning back into the Eastern Conference Final.
The continuing saga of Brandon Prust vs. Ben Bishop concluded in this series, aided by Steven Stamkos tossing an elbow pad into the crowd.