BROSSARD, Que. – The Montreal Canadiens hope to turn last year’s playoff disaster into this year’s success.
The Canadiens finished second in the Eastern Conference in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign only to see their attack fizzle and their players take a pounding in a five-game setback to the Ottawa Senators.
Their offence, if not so much their mettle, will be tested again when they face the tight-checking Lightning in a best-of-seven conference quarter-final starting Wednesday night in Tampa.
Captain Brian Gionta feels the experience gained a year ago, along with a strong finish to the regular season, has the Canadiens in better shape going into the post-season.
“We’ve had a good last run coming in,” said Gionta, whose club went 11-3-1 down the stretch. “And we have more guys with playoff experience now.
“Last year we had a lot of guys who hadn’t played in the playoffs. Hopefully with that experience they’ll understand more what it’s about.”
What this series looks to be about is goaltending and patience.
The Bolts won the season series between the teams 3-1, but three of the games ended 1-1 in regulation time and were decided either in overtime or a shootout.
In the last meeting April 1 in Tampa, the Lightning won 3-1 with an empty-net goal by Alex Killorn. Special teams was the difference, with Tampa Bay going 2-for-9 with the man advantage while Montreal was 0-for-4.
“I don’t expect it to be much different,” added Gionta. “They’ve got a great team that plays in-your-face and doesn’t give you much time and space. It’ll be a good series, for sure.”
A key will be goaltending, and whether Carey Price can carry the experience of leading Canada to gold at the Winter Olympics in February into the similarly pressure-packed NHL playoffs. The 26-year-old has a 9-17 career post-season record with a 2.90 goals-against average, but his game took a big step forward this season.
“It’s all about preparing for the (next) game, regardless of what’s happened before, or whether you’re playing good or bad,” said Price.
In Tampa, there were fears the season was ruined when six-foot-seven Ben Bishop went down with an arm injury on April 8, but six-foot-six Anders Lindback—who had struggled—went 3-0-0 with two shutouts in the final week of the regular season.
Bishop has no NHL playoff experience and Lindback played only 13 minutes of one game for Nashville in 2011, so how either will react to the spotlight is a question mark. Tampa Bay also has Latvian Kristers Gudlevskis, who gave Price and Canada a scare in Sochi with 55 saves in a 2-1 defeat.
Coach Jon Cooper’s Lightning managed a 101-point season despite massive setbacks, including the loss of superstar Steven Stamkos for 45 games with a broken leg and captain Martin St. Louis’ successful demand for a trade. The Bolts got the gritty Ryan Callahan from the Rangers in return for the last player left from Tampa Bay’s 2004 Stanley Cup team.
That year marked the only previous playoff meeting between the teams, and Tampa Bay swept it 4-0.
Last week, Ryan Malone was arrested for impaired driving and cocaine possession, although the veteran forward is no longer a key player.
The Canadiens were boosted by some sharp deadline dealing by general manager Marc Bergevin, who picked up veteran defence help in Mike Weaver, a useful checker in Dale Weise and a first-line scorer in Thomas Vanek.
Vanek had six goals and nine assists in 17 games after the trade and his play with David Desharais and Max Pacioretty gave Montreal one of its most dangerous first-line units in years.
Now the Austrian right-winger will be looked upon to be an offensive leader in the playoffs.
“They got me here for the stretch run to help them out and hopefully to help evolve their game, which is a good challenge for myself,” said Vanek. “It’s a new season now.
“One guy isn’t going to make the difference, but what’s good is I found chemistry on a good line. The three of us need to be good, but it’s depth that wins in the playoffs. A line can win a game or two, but not a Cup.”
The Canadiens hope Vanek’s unit can help a power play that went 0-for-23 in the last eight games but taking some of the attention away from point men P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov.
Tampa Bay had the 13th best power play at 18.5 per cent this season, but has been deadlier since Stamkos’ return. The Canadiens counter with the NHL’s fourth-best penalty killing unit, led by heady two-way centre Tomas Plekanec.
A wild card for Montreal is winger Daniel Briere, who was signed last summer mostly for his history of playoff magic. He has 109 points in 108 career post-season games.
But mostly, it will be about discipline—both teams sticking to their system and minimizing mistakes because goals will likely be hard to get.
“We’re very comfortable playing in those types of situations,” said Price. “We’ve done well in those types of games all season.
“That’s playoff hockey to a T. Every team plays solid defensively and that one goal can make a difference. Limiting scoring chances and scoring on your own chances is a key.”
The Canadiens hope to have Brandon Prust back after the rugged winger missed the end of the season with a suspected rib injury, but they will be missing young playmaker Alex Galchenyuk for the series with a knee injury.