The Lightning and Canadiens were separated by one point in the Atlantic Division standings. Tampa Bay won three of four regular-season meetings, but three went to overtime and two went to a shootout. The Tribune’s Erik Erlendsson looks at how these evenly matched teams compare in key categories:
Montreal had one of the hottest lines at the end of the regular season with Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek, who was a key trade-deadline acquisition. Tomas Plekanec is an underrated two-way center while Daniel Briere, nearly cast aside midway through the season, is a proven playoff performer. The Lightning possess three legitimate scoring lines, and what they lack in overall size they make up for in speed. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat won titles in the minor leagues, Valtteri Filppula won a Stanley Cup in Detroit and Steven Stamkos is the best goal scorer in the game.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Montreal’s P.K. Subban, the reigning Norris Trophy winner, has not had a strong season, but he is still a dangerous threat with the puck. Andrei Markov has been a key power-play contributor, while Alexei Yemelin and Josh Gorges provide a stable presence in the defensive zone. Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman enjoyed a breakthrough season that might warrant some Norris Trophy consideration. Sami Salo, Eric Brewer and Matt Carle provide the veteran leadership, while Radko Gudas can turn a game with a well-timed hip check.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Carey Price is coming off his best statistical season to date and led Canada to a gold medal at the Olympics in February. But he came back from Russia nursing an injury that could be a factor in the series. Price also has not lived up to his billing in postseason play with a career 9-17 playoff record, a 2.90 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage. Tampa Bay will start the series without Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop and instead lean on Anders Lindback and rookie Kristers Gudlevskis.
The Lightning power play with Steven Stamkos is better than its 18.5 percent showing in the regular season, and Tampa Bay registered 15 power-play goals in the final 15 games. Tampa Bay’s penalty kill has been awful at times and stellar at others — it allowed three or more goals in a game five times. Montreal’s power play was 0-for-23 in the final eight games and 0-for-14 overall against the Lightning, but it still finished 19th in the league. Vanek can be dangerous. The Canadiens’ penalty kill is a strength, finishing fourth overall in the regular season.
Both sides downplayed any advantage home ice might give the Lightning, but for many of Tampa Bay’s young players, starting in a friendly arena and playing no more than three games in the intimidating Bell Centre will be an advantage. The Canadiens have more playoff experience on their roster, but many of the Lightning’s young core players won a minor-league championship and were in the AHL finals the past two seasons.