PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals; Lightning lead 2-0.
A popular pick by many observers to be upset in the first round, the Tampa Bay Lightning are playing like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The top-seeded Lightning look to take a 3-0 lead in their semifinal series when they hit the road to take on the Montreal Canadiens.
Dismissed by many as an overrated club at the start of the NHL postseason, the Lightning have proven themselves as a team to be taken seriously in two playoff rounds. Backstopped by the league’s hottest goaltender and led offensively by several of the NHL’s most dynamic scorers, Tampa Bay looks like a favorite to reach the Stanley Cup finals.
The Lightning put together another impressive performance Sunday, playing smothering defense in front of Nikolai Khabibulin and getting a pair of goals from Vincent Lecavalier in a 3-1 victory over the Canadiens in Game 2.
Khabibulin has been the biggest reason why Tampa has made a mockery of its pre-playoff doubters, beating the New York Islanders in five games in the first round before easily winning Games 1 and 2 of this series. He has allowed five goals in seven starts and leads all goaltenders in the postseason with four shutouts, a 0.71 goals-against average and a .974 save percentage.
“He was unbelievable,” Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina told the St. Petersburg Times after Game 2. “He made some great saves. He’s been great the whole playoffs. It’s just amazing to watch him in the net with what he’s capable of.”
While Khabibulin has mostly kept the puck out of Tampa Bay’s net, Lecavalier, NHL regular-season scoring leader Martin St. Louis and Fredrik Modin have been providing their team with more than enough offense to win. Modin had the Lightning’s other goal Sunday, tying Lecavalier and St. Louis for the team lead.
Lecavalier’s second goal in Game 2 may have broken Montreal’s spirit going into the third period, as he scored on a breakaway with 2.4 seconds remaining in the second. The Canadiens’ Sheldon Souray turned the puck over and Lecavalier caught up to a pass from Cory Sarich at the blue line before breaking in and beating Jose Theodore.
“You knew they were going to still battle hard, but it’s a lot different game when it’s 3-1 going into the third,” Tampa Bay’s Brad Richards said. “You never want to let a team score a goal with two seconds left.”
The Canadiens will now have to put together a second straight dramatic comeback if they want to advance. Seventh-seeded Montreal erased a 3-1 series deficit to stun Boston in the opening round, but may have a much tougher task in pulling off a similar turnaround against Khabibulin and young, confident Tampa Bay.
“We know we can do it, but we also know that we’re going to have to adjust our game because if we play like the first 10 minutes tonight, it’s going to be tough to win some games,” Theodore said.
“With the skill they have, they’re going to make you pay.”
After falling behind Sunday, Montreal had trouble generating chances on the choppy ice surface of the St. Pete Times Forum, a condition that’s unlikely to come into play Tuesday at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens will look to open up the game on the smoother ice with their speed and skill, but the equally quick Lightning can match that part of Montreal’s game.
Montreal captain Saku Koivu scored late in the first period Sunday on a power play, a goal that ended Khabibulin’s shutout streak at 93 minutes, 19 seconds. The Canadiens forwards, though, will have to be much better against their Lightning counterparts for Montreal to have a chance in Game 3.
St. Louis leads the league with a plus-9 rating in the postseason, followed by Modin and Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle at plus-7.
The Canadiens almost certainly need Alex Kovalev to produce if they are to rally in this series. The enigmatic forward scored five goals in Montreal’s series victory over Boston and was instrumental in its comeback after his overtime giveaway in Game 4 pushed his team to the brink of elimination.
Kovalev had an assist Sunday and recorded five shots on goal.
Game 4 is Thursday night at Montreal.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Lightning - 1st seed; beat New York Islanders 4-1, quarterfinals. Canadiens - 7th seed; beat Boston Bruins 4-3, quarterfinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lightning - St. Louis, Lecavalier and Modin, 4 goals; St. Louis, Modin and Richards, 5 assists; Modin and St. Louis, 9 points; St. Louis, 8 PIM. Canadiens - Kovalev, 5 goals; Koivu, 8 assists and 11 points; Souray, 33 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Lightning - Power play: 9.7 percent (3 for 31). Penalty killing: 85.7 percent (18 for 21). Canadiens - Power play: 11.4 percent (4 for 35). Penalty killing: 90.9 percent (30 for 33).