(Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
The NHL’s new divisional playoff format has produced incredible matchups between long-time rivals, struggling to extend their playoff lives in what should be intense, passion-filled postseason wars.
This isn’t to say this series won’t be intense; to wit, it’s hard to imagine this battle between evenly matched teams not going to six or seven games. But from a history standpoint … well, it’s not exactly Rangers and Flyers.
Who takes this series between Atlantic Division teams, one located nowhere near the Atlantic and the other on the Gulf of Mexico?
Steven Stamkos was limited to 37 games, and scored 25 goals in them. He managed to lead the Lightning in power play goals (9) and game-winning goals (5) despite the time off. Which is ridiculous. His time away gave ice time, and responsibilities, to rookies Tyler Johnson (24-26-50) and Ondrej Palat (23-36-59), who now skate with Stamkos.
Valtteri Filppula had 58 points in 75 games and is north of 53 percent on faceoffs. The St. Louis trade brought gritty Ryan Callahan to the mix, and he’s scored 11 points in 20 games. Montreal native Alex Killorn had 41 points in 82 games.
Teddy Purcell, J.T. Brown, Nikita Kucherov, B.J. Crombeen, Nate Thompson and Richard Panik fill out the forward group. Then there’s Ryan Malone, who has his mind on other lines these days.
Montreal has some legitimate pop in its lineup. The top line of Max Pacioretty (39 goals), David Desharnais (52 points) and Thomas Vanek (15 points in 18 games) is solid. Tomas Plekanec, always good in the postseason, centers Brian Gionta (40 points) and Brendan Gallagher (41 points). Speaking of playoff performers: That’s why Danny Briere has a contract with this team, with 109 points in 108 playoff games. He’ll likely skate with Lars Eller and/or Rene Bourque. Ryan White, Brandon Prust, George Parros, Travis Moen, Dale Weise and Michael Bournival round out the forward group.
The Habs will miss Alex Galchenyuk, who could miss the first round with a lower body injury.
What a monster season out of Victor Hedman: 55 points, skating 22:26 per night and the team’s leader in corsi and corsi rel, a.k.a. they’re a much better possession team with him on the ice. He’s paired with veteran Sami Salo, who was a plus-11 in 71 games. The mighty beard of Radko Gudas skates with steady Matt Carle; Eric Brewer rounds out the top five, likely playing with Michael Kostka or Andrej Sustr.
P.K. Subban leads the Habs defense, playing 24:36 per night and scoring 53 points, second most on the team. He should be paired with Josh Gorges, who stays at home while P.K. roams. Andrei Markov had 21 points in the power play and played 81 games, which is probably 41 more than you’d usually expect from Markov; he’s paired with hard-hitting Alexei Emelin; Francis Bouillon, Jarred Tinordi, Douglas Murray and Mike Weaver round out the group.
Ben Bishop will miss Game 1. That much is clear. Which sucks for Tampa, because he’s their MVP: 2.33 GAA, .924 save percentage and 37 wins on the season. The backbone of so much of what they do, and who they are. They need him.
Anders Lindback put together some decent games at the end of the season to calm fears that his putrid .891 save percentage would carry over to the postseason, but he’s without question a downgrade.
Carey Price has a gold medal around his neck and immense expectations on his shoulders. His 2.32 GAA and .927 save percentage are Vezina quality numbers. But he’s been inconsistent since Sochi, nursing an injury and giving up three or more goals in six of 11 starts. Still, he allowed one or fewer goals three times in that stretch, too.
ADVANTAGE: Canadiens is Bishop is hurt; even if he plays.
Tampa Bay earned home ice with a 7-3-0 run at the end of the season, including four wins in a row.
Montreal went 7-2-1 and finished a point behind the Lightning. But their top line is one of the hottest in hockey at the end of the season.
This is Jon Cooper’s first Stanley Cup Playoffs, but not his first playoffs. He led the Norfolk Admirals, and several of the current Lightning players, to the Calder Cup in 2012 and to the Finals the following season in Syracuse. He’s as much the reason the Bolts are here as anyone else.
Michel Therrien is where he usually is: In the playoffs, with many fans believing the team is winning despite his meddling. Expect line combinations to be drawn out of a hat that's attached to a dart board by Game 2.
The Lightning were 13th in the NHL on the power play (18.5) and 23rd on the kill (80.7).
Montreal was 19th on the power play (17.2) and fourth on the kill (85.1). However, as the Tampa Tribune noted, “Montreal’s power play was 0-for-23 in the final eight games and 0-for-14 overall against the Lightning.” Still …
Series Slow Jam
“Age Ain't Nothing But A Number” by Aaliyah, in honor of the lack of playoff experience for several players on Tampa.
Swipe left on... Bell Centre. If you’re looking for one clear, distinct advantage in this series, it’s the atmosphere for Games 3, 4 and potentially 6.
Swipe right on... Teddy Purcell, who’s had an underwhelming season (42 points in 81 games) and has tumbled down the lineup. He hasn’t scored a goal in 11 games.
Tampa Bay in seven. On paper, Montreal is the better team, but the Lightning play like the better team. This is the moment for two people with the Lightning: Stamkos and Cooper. The former is out of Marty St. Louis’ shadow and had six goals in 18 games in his last playoff run. The latter will try and build on his impressive resume this season with a playoff series win. I think he gets one … if Bishop comes back.