2015’s Biggest Rivalry: Canadiens vs Lightning

To an outsider, the Montreal Canadiens have been doing well all year. Since the season began, the Habs never went lower in the standings than the Wild Card spot,and that only for a couple of games. They spent most of the season in second or first place in their division. Truth is the Canadiens were off to wobbly start. An uncoordinated defence, anemic powerplay and a shy 5 on 5 presence would have been the descriptive of the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge after a game in November. Lucky for Montreal, the wobbly wheels never came off the wagon and was kept on the road largely because the spectacular play of Carey Price, who cemented his reputation as the best goalie in the world that started rumbling after the Olympics and flashes of brilliance by Canadiens’ skaters such as this P.K. Subban goal

Remains that the Canadiens Hockey Club left some towns with points they had no business getting.

The Habs did not always come out on top. Right off the bat, the Canadiens chained three consecutive wins to start the season. Two of those games could have been losses, the Canadiens were riding a high that would come crashing down against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Steven Stamkos netted a hat trick to help the Bolts earn a 7-1 victory over the Habs. The first of two times, thus far this season, the Canadiens would lose by a shameful 6 goal margin.

But all of this is behind us now. The Canadiens are playing a better game and the wins are starting to be more and more convincing. In the midst of a winning streak, the last win in Pittsburgh was by far the most authoritative the Habs recorded this season. The game was seized at the opening faceoff never to be relinquished.

Canadiens vs Lightning II: The Revenging

Beating the two best team in the Metropolitan Division in a matter of two weeks is as much a boost of confidence as it is a statement. The Canadiens are for real and they are dangerous. The Tampa Bay Lightning is the only team in the Atlantic division the Habs have not beaten. Like Poseidon duking it out with the Kraken, two titans will clash in the Atlantic. The Bolts represent the last big obstacle the Habs have to overcome if they want to rightfully prove themselves as the best hockey team this side of Chicago.

In 12 games within their division, the Canadiens have a record of 9-2-1, scored 34 goals and allowed 27.

Now back home after a flawless 4 game road trip, the Habs will need home ice advantage to contain the Lightning’s striking (first in the league with 134 goals) . The Bolts (10-8-3) are no chumps on the road.  Of  Tampa’s 12 forwards, only 4th line centre Brian Boyle and rookie Jonathan Drouin have RoadCorsiF% under 50.0 (49.7 for Boyle and 48.2 for Drouin) The team has a RoadCorsiF% of 53.5, second best in the league behind the L.A. Kings. Bad news for the Montreal club that’s 23rd in the league with a 49.8 HomeCorsiF%. Carey Price will need to be in the same mindset he was in against the Kings when he received 46 shots and his team responding with only 20 shots on Martin Jones.

Bolts & Habs battle (Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports)
Bolts & Habs battle (Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports)

You Better Be Special

Special units could be the game breaker as both teams are in the top 10 in the NHL at 5v5. The Canadiens scored 42 goals on home ice at even strength. The Lightning netted 46 on the road. The Lightning’s 27 powerplay goals is 10th best in the league but it took them 149 chances to get them, for a 18.12% efficiency rate. Since the beginning of the season, the Habs’ powerplay has been anemic to say the least. At 14.55%, they only scored 15 goals out of 110 chances. With two more games played, the Lightning drew 39 more penalties than the Habs.  Even with their fifth best penalty killing unit in the NHL  at 86.46% efficiency, the Canadiens’ can’t tempt fate. They will have to play a disciplined game against a fast team that controls the puck, something the Habs, especially their defencemen, have a hard time doing.

Tomas Plekanec will have to uphold his standard shadowing of Steven Stamkos and try to nullify his play throughout the game. The Habs will need to be apprehensive of Tampa Bay’s second line who are putting up points for their team in the last few games. The Line of Ondrej Palat – Tyler Johnson – Nikita Kucherov combine for 37 points in the last 10 games.

Everyone is expected to show up tonight, Tampa has a healthy club except for Brandon Prust’s best friend Radko Gudas who is out to get knee surgery.

This game is not important because of the history it carries but because of what’s ahead. The 7-1 defeat is far behind and last year’s playoff sweep even further. This is a set-up match for the future. With the Bruins and Leafs playing catch up for the rest of the season, the Lightning will represent the Habs’ biggest rivals in their division this year. There are 4 games still to be played between the two clubs this season and the Atlantic division lead could be at stake in each game. To look even further down the road, if the Habs make it to the second round of the playoffs, the odds are in favor of  the Tampa Bay Lightning to be their opponent. With nearly half the season already, both teams have found their identity and are playing solid hockey. Both teams are rested, both clubs are healthy. Best efforts, no excuses.