Montreal fended off Tampa Bay for the Atlantic Division title, but the two teams will square off in the second round for division supremacy. Carey Price will carry the Canadiens’ hopes, while Lightning super-sniper Steven Stamkos will look to break out in Round 2.
WHAT WE LEARNED IN ROUND 1:
CANADIENS: Montreal stormed out to a 3-0 series lead in the first round against Ottawa before eventually eliminating the Senators in six games. They didn’t cruise to victory, but did show the ability to win tightly contested, nearly error-proof games – they were 3-1 in one-goal decisions – and got the excellence in net they’ve come to expect from superstar Carey Price.
LIGHTNING: The Bolts proved they could win with next to no offense from superstar center Steven Stamkos, who didn’t score once against Detroit and finished the first round with three points. Youngster Tyler Johnson carried much of the load on the scoresheet, amassing a league-best six goals in seven games. But Tampa Bay was pushed to the brink of elimination and was down 3-2 in the series before holding the Red Wings to just two goals in the final two games. They’re far from a perfect team.
MVP SO FAR:
CANADIENS: Price was the Habs’ most valuable player in the regular season – in many people’s minds, he was also the league’s MVP – and against the Sens in the first round, he was their biggest difference-maker once again. The 27-year-old posted a 1.94 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in six games, and those numbers would’ve been higher had Price not slumped in Game 5; indeed, in three of the six games – two wins and a loss for the Canadiens – Price’s SP was at .969 or higher. When he’s “on,” nobody is better.
LIGHTNING: Johnson was a one-man wrecking crew against the Wings, scoring two game-winners and adding an assist to finish the first round on a point-per-game pace. The speedy 24-year-old also registered an incredible 30.0 percent shooting percentage by needing just 20 shots to record his half-dozen goals on Petr Mrazek. He and linemates Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov combined to (a) form one of the most dangerous lines in the playoffs; and (b) produce 14 points between them. The Habs don’t just have to worry about Stamkos beating them.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
CANADIENS: 1. Two of Montreal’s game-winning goals against Ottawa came from lesser lights Dale Weise and Brian Flynn, and star defenseman P.K. Subban led them in scoring with four points. That’s not the most ringing endorsement of forwards Max Pacioretty (two points in five games) and Alex Galchenyuk (two points in six games), and Montreal’s 2.00 goals-for per-game average was second-worst in the first round. But the Habs had trouble producing offense during the regular season, too. They’ll go as far as Price can carry them. 2. The Canadiens’ special teams are a serious area of concern for head coach Michel Therrien. Their power play in the first round operated at a brutal five percent efficiency rate – only the Isles’ was worse at 0 percent – and their penalty kill was ranked 12th out of 16 teams at 75 percent. The Lightning weren’t much better against Detroit, but if they give Stamkos & Co. time to find their game with the man advantage, Montreal will regret it. 3. Subban was a leviathan once again on the blueline, leading the team in average ice time (25:08 per game against Ottawa) and power play time (4:55), and finishing second in penalty kill minutes (2:20) while also producing more points than any of his teammates. The 25-year-old also was second on the Habs in giveaways with nine, but he and partner Andrei Markov are high-risk, high-reward defenders, and Price is there to take care of the risk.
LIGHTNING: 1. Tampa Bay’s top defensive pairing of emerging young star Victor Hedman and off-season free agent acquisition Anton Stralman was a steadying force vs. Detroit. The 24-year-old Hedman lead the Lightning in minutes (averaging 22:19 per game) and blocks (13), while the 28-year-old Stralman was tied for second on the team in hits (21) and was first in takeaways (four). They don’t have the profile of Subban and Markov, but they’re quietly getting the job done. 2. Veteran right winger Ryan Callahan was the Bolts’ most physical force against the Wings, leading them in hits (27) and chipping in five blocked shots while averaging 3:24 of power play ice time per game. The 30-year-old didn’t score on Mrazek and finished the first round with only three assists, but if his linemate Stamkos heats up, it’s highly likely Callahan’s numbers on offense will rise dramatically. 3. There was some skepticism about goalie Ben Bishop (and his distinct lack of post-season experience) heading into the playoffs, and those fears seemed well-founded early in the first round when the 28-year-old posted save percentages of .900 or lower in Tampa’s three losses to Detroit. However, Bishop stopped 53 of 55 shots in the final two games (including a 31-save shutout in Game 7) and outplayed the opposition’s goalie when it counted most. He’ll need to do that against Price if the Bolts are to have any hope of making it to the Eastern Final to take on either the Rangers or Capitals.
WHAT THE STATS SAY by Dom Luszczyszyn:
CANADIENS: I don’t think there’s a worse matchup for the Habs than this one against the Lightning. They went 0-fer in the regular season, got badly out-scored and had just 35 percent of the shot attempts. That’s bleak. The full season numbers don’t favor them much either, but there’s one big one that stands out: save percentage. This team has Carey Price, and you cannot count out a team that has Carey Price. This teams lives and dies by Price, and they’ll likely have to do the same here.
LIGHTNING: Steven Stamkos did not score a goal in Round 1, and Tampa Bay somehow won anyways. Now he gets to face a team that he feasted upon this season (he had a hat-trick and 12 shots in their first meeting of the year) and that luck might suddenly turn. By the numbers, Tampa Bay has the better team. They carry play better and they outscore other teams by more. Their one fatal flaw is an anemic power play that fails to get shots at the net, which is a big reason it went 2 for 30 against the Red Wings.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn:
Steven Stamkos and Max Pacioretty are two of the best goal-scorers in the league and they had very similar stat lines this year: about 40 goals and about 30 assists. How they score their goals is where they differ. Pacioretty is like most elite goal-scorers in that he gets them from taking a high volume of shots. Stamkos is a pure sniper scoring on a higher percentage of them. These two will be hungry to light the lamp after a pedestrian first round (by their standards) and it’s likely that whoever wins this goal-scoring contest will lead their team to the conference final.
PREDICTION: Lightning in six.