There are two ways to look at the Tampa Bay Lightning from the perspective of their second-round opponents, the Montreal Canadiens.
Behind door No. 1? An offensive juggernaut that can in theory turn it on at will, which, despite failing to do so against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, still made it out alive. That does not bode all that well for the Canadiens entering round two, even if there’s a small chance their struggles continue.
The second way is as a team who needed seven games, having to come from behind in the process, to just barely squeak by a supposedly outmatched-from-the-get-go opponent that was also missing two key defenseman and one top-six forward (Johan Franzen) in the rubber match.
Add to that the general consensus that Detroit would have been a very beatable opponent (at least for the Atlantic Division-champion Canadiens) and all of a sudden Montreal’s chances are looking far better than they did, oh, say two paragraphs ago.
Really, no matter how you look at it, the Canadiens have a chance. However, despite finishing ahead of Tampa in the regular season, they are likely the underdogs here.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
While some hyped up the first-round series between the Canadiens and Ottawa Senators as a rematch from two years ago (which it technically was), the simple truth was several key players had changed.
The physicality fans witnessed in the early-going arguably had more to do with defenseman P.K. Subban’s slash on Senators forward Mark Stone in Game 1, 2015 than defenseman Eric Gryba’s hit on Lars Eller in Game 1, 2013, in other words. That’s only logical.
Still, even though Montreal’s sweep of Tampa last spring was only a year ago, there’s an argument to be made that Tampa’s team right now is actually much more different relative to its previous incarnation than Ottawa’s was.
As a result, this series won’t be about bad blood (nor is it expected to draw as much as the Ottawa series). Tampa already got their so-called revenge for last spring with a 5-0 record against Montreal this season. It’s instead about who is better built for the playoffs.
You can definitely make a case that Montreal is, based on their defense-first preferred style of play. However, to dismiss Tampa’s defense would be a mistake. In fact, that’s one of the biggest changes from last spring, Tampa’s retooled blue line.
One popular misconception from last year is that Montreal only swept Tampa because then-Vezina Trophy-nominee Ben Bishop was injured and the Lightning were forced to rely on Anders Lindback. However, the simple fact of the matter is Montreal dictated the tempo of play and out-possessed Tampa’s supposed speed demons.
In reality, Tampa’s slow-footed defense back then was a large reason they were able to. However, gone are Eric Brewer, Keith Aulie, and Michael Kotska (all of whom played in Game 4 last year). In are Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, and Braydon Coburn.
As a result, Habs fans shouldn’t expect to see the Canadiens skate circles around the Lightning once again or as they did in the first half of last round against Ottawa.
Carey Price vs. Ben Bishop
Instead, fans will look forward to yet another instalment of the Carey Price show, much more akin to the officially Hart Memorial Trophy-nominated goalie’s 43-save, series-clinching performance against the Senators last Sunday. That the Habs obviously won that specific contest is proof they have a shot here.
At the other end is no slouch in the 6’7” Bishop. While Bishop isn’t having a spectacular season, he isn’t having a bad one (40-13-5, .916 save percentage, 2.32 goals-against average). And, if you have any doubts he isn’t in the same league as Price (aside from, you know, the actual NHL), consider that, not only was he nominated for the Vezina for the first time in his career before Price, but that he is the first goalie to pitch a shutout in his first career game 7 since Price back in 2008 against the Boston Bruins.
Of course, it should be noted that Bishop is actually a year older than Price. That he’s only now playing in his first game 7 (or, more shockingly, seeing playoff action at all) is further proof Montreal is in good shape.
Price is no doubt the better goalie and will realistically outplay Bishop, in that to a certain extent he should be able to contain the talents of Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Pal… well, essentially a team that can afford to make a phenomenal young talent in Jonathan Drouin a regular healthy scratch.
While it will be a challenge for Price, it’s an attainable one to a certain degree. The real question is whether or not Montreal’s skaters will be able to outplay Bishop. For a team that got just two goals a game in the first round, that had just a single power-play goal, scored by the guy who was supposed to be the least healthy at the time, it might be too much ask.
The saying goes that there isn’t such a thing as a stupid question, though. And there is likely no shortage of people in the Habs’ locker room willing to raise their hands. They’ll give it a try. Their best, presumably. We’ll soon see if it’s enough.