Young players on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster are about to experience something unlike anything they've ever seen: playoff hockey in Montreal. The NHL's most passionate market pulls off playoff hockey like none other, the Bell Centre rocking at high decibels and the fans chanting and singing in soccer-like fashion to produce an incredible atmosphere.
Will it matter?
For starters, by winning a shootout in Washington on Sunday afternoon, the Lightning jumped ahead of Montreal and grabbed home-ice advantage for the series, so at worst they will play three games in that crazy circus. Plus, the Bolts won both games they played in Montreal during the regular season and took three of four overall in the season series. Mind you, it was an awfully close series, with three of the four games needing extra time, and Tampa Bay's 3-1 win April 1 was decided by a Tyler Johnson short-hander with just over seven minutes to go in the game.
Two closely matched teams is what this playoff series serves up, both clubs exceeding expectations this season. The Lightning have been riding high despite different challenges, including Steven Stamkos' broken leg, captain Martin St. Louis asking for a trade and getting it March 5 to New York and this weekend's arrest of winger Ryan Malone. But it doesn't seem to matter what you throw at the Bolts, they find a way to win.
Lightning: Ben Bishop
Will Ben Bishop be ready for the start of the series or return at some point in the series? And when he returns, just how effective will he be after suffering a wrist injury late in the regular season that shut him down for the final three games? In his first season as a full-fledged starting netminder, Bishop answered the call brilliantly, placing among the league leaders in all the main categories and perhaps being the most important factor in Tampa Bay not sinking without an injured Stamkos for four months. Bishop was an absolute rock. On the flip side, this will be the first NHL postseason of his career, having not yet appeared in an NHL playoff game. Above all else, however, the only concern with Bishop is focused on his health. Backup Anders Lindback looked solid in the final week of the regular season with Bishop out, but overall he has not been a reliable option this season.
Canadiens: P.K. Subban
Well, of course, right? Whom else could it be on? Subban is a polarizing player with oodles of talent. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner was benched this season by coach Michel Therrien after big defensive mistakes. On the other hand, Subban has put up another monster offensive season and the Habs would have been toast without his all-world skills in spearheading the transition game and power play. Me? I love this player. I think he'll step up big-time in these playoffs. There's certainly incentive for him to do so as a pending restricted free agent. But I just think he thrives on this stage -- the bigger, the better.
Hero In Waiting
Lightning: Ryan Callahan
All eyes will be on superstar Stamkos, of course, and I suspect he will deliver the goods and then some for the Bolts. But who else will? If the Lightning win this series, they will need other heroes, and I think Callahan will be one of them. The former Rangers captain oozes character, he's fit in seamlessly with Tampa Bay since coming over in a trade on March 5, and I can see him embracing the stage. Look for him to step up and be clutch.
Canadiens: Carey Price
An obvious pick, I know, but I just can't pass it up because, at the end of the day, if the Habs prevail in this series it's likely because Price was the deciding factor. Named top goaltender of the Olympic tournament, Price showed tremendous composure in the most pressure-packed situation of his young career, and I think that will serve him well in these playoffs. He wasn't very good against the Ottawa Senators a year ago before getting hurt in the series, but this is a different Price. He had a Vezina-worthy season and showed remarkable consistency in his game night in and night out. Get ready to hear some "Carey, Carey" chants at the Bell Centre.
Lightning: Special teams
The Bolts were a middling team both on the power play and the penalty kill this season. While the Habs also were a middle-of-the-road team on the power play, where the difference lies in special teams is with Montreal's stingy, top-five penalty kill. Led by Tomas Plekanec, the Habs have been a force on the PK, allowing only two power-play goals to the Lighting in their four games against each other. Tampa Bay needs to try to even the special-teams battle to win this series.
Canadiens: 5-on-5 scoring
For most of the season, the Habs were among the worst teams in 5-on-5 scoring. It certainly improved over the final month with the addition of star sniper Thomas Vanek and better overall offensive play by the team. Montreal was top-10 in 5-on-5 scoring over the final month. Vanek has found great chemistry on the top line with David Desharnais and top Montreal goal scorer Max Pacioretty on perhaps the Canadiens' most potent forward unit in several seasons. That has certainly helped alleviate the 5-on-5 scoring issues Montreal had for most of the season, at least for now.
So much rides on the health of Bishop, who set a franchise record with 37 wins this season. A healthy Bishop ready for Game 1 makes this a very even series that should go six or seven games. If he can't go, it obviously changes the look and outcome of this series. Canadiens in 7 (in an incredibly close series)