Playoff Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens
When the NHL decided to go back to a divisional playoff format, it was to encourage traditional rivals to meet each other in the playoffs, as well as to foster new rivalries. The Lightning and Canadiens are clearly a case of the latter: the teams have only met each other once in the playoffs, in 2004, when the best Lightning team in history swept the Canadiens 4-0 on their way to their first and only Stanley Cup Championship, and there is little bad blood between the teams. However, the teams share both a time zone and, to some extent, a fan base, as expat Canadians wintering in Florida will have to choose whether to support their original home or their adopted one.
Team Records and Head-to-Head
Tampa Bay – 46-27-9, 101 points. Goals F/A – 232-209. Fenwick Close – 51.7%
Montreal – 46-28-8 points. Goals F/A – 209-201. Fenwick Close – 48.4%
Season Matchup – The Lightning won three of the four head-to-head games between the team, with each team winning one game in a shootout and the Lightning winning the last two outright. All the games were low-scoring affairs (1-1, 1-1, 2-1, 3-1), with the Lightning outscoring the Canadiens 7-4 over the entire period.
Offense, or a tale of Feast and Famine
Tampa Bay Offense: +12.9 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Montreal Offense: -10.1 GVT (Rank: 21st in NHL)
Advantage: Tampa Bay +23
The Lightning were a surprisingly explosive team for a group that lost their major offensive weapon – Steven Stamkos – in November and played without him for over three months. They also traded the league’s reigning scoring champion, Martin St. Louis, in March. The revelation of the season was Ondrej Palat. A 7th-round pick in 2011, Palat had only played 14 NHL games prior to this season, but in his first full season he was extremely impressive, leading the team in scoring after the departure of St.Louis and contributing at even-strength, on the power-play and even short-handed. Obviously, the Lightning are a much better team with Stamkos back: the man led all current Lightning players in goals this year (25) despite playing only 36 games!
This success was quite a contrast with the disappointment in Montreal. The Canadiens had the 5th-best offense in the league in 2012-13 and were hoping to improve on that with their core of young players, but it was not to be. Alexander Galchenyuk, a revelation a year ago as a rookie, went down in points-per-game from 0.56 to 0.48 despite getting a full minute of extra power-play time. P.K. Subban dropped from the league’s top-scoring defenseman to the sixth. Even Max Pacioretty, the darling of the Montreal media for approaching 40 goals, actually dipped slightly in points-per-game from the previous two seasons. Only 1 playoff team, the Los Angeles Kings, scored fewer goals at 5-on-5 than the Canadiens (by 1!), and the Los Angeles defense is an order of magnitude better than the Montreal one. The Montreal story is partly explained by a drop in shooting percentage, from 9.9% to 9.0%, and partly by reduced offensive opportunities: their shots per game dropped from 30.6 last year to 28.4 this year.
The Twin Towers in Nets
Tampa Bay: +7.0 Defensive GVT, +4.5 Goaltending GVT, +11.5 Total Defensive GVT
Montreal: -2.0 Defensive GVT, +18.5 Goaltending GVT, +16.5 Total Defensive GVT
Both of these teams lived for most of the season on the quality of their goaltending. For most of the season, the story in Tampa Bay was Ben Bishop. A journeyman with only 45 games of NHL experience over four seasons before this year, the Lightning acquired Bishop from Ottawa with the express intent of making him their new #1, and the plan worked beautifully. Bishop maintained a league-leading 0.929 save percentage and 25 GVT until early March, but his play tailed off near the end of the season. Much will depend on whether Bishop can return and play at his top level: he is currently nursing an elbow injury and will miss game 1.
Bishop, however, was not alone: while the Lightning’s blue line used to be their undoing, the top four has evolved into a relatively strong group. The headliner is Victor Hedman, who has blossomed into the strong two-way defensemen the team envisioned when they took him first overall in 2009. He needs to work on his penalty taking a bit, but otherwise his play is almost flawless. Matthew Carle is the best defensive defenseman of the bunch and led the team in total ice time this season. Sami Salo, Hedman’s frequent defense partner, is the elder statesman at 39 years old but still plays 18 minutes per game.
In Montreal, Carey Price was the story of the year. After a weak 2012-13, Price bounced back to be one of the top 5 goaltenders in the league, and even punctuated the season by backstopping team Canada to Gold in the Sochi Olympics. Price tied for the second-best save percentage in the league, behind only Boston’s Tukka Rask, and managed to win 9 games in which his teammates scored 2 or fewer goals. If we are even discussing the Canadiens’ ‘playoff hopes, Price is the main reason.
The Canadiens team defense was not bad but it wasn’t spectacular either. Their top two defensemen, Andrei Markov and Subban, are excellent players but are more known for their offensive skill than their shutdown abilities, although in all fairness to Markov he excels at both. Markov also takes few penalties (9 minors, compared to 31 for Subban), a subtle skill that rewards his team. The Canadiens also lean heavily on Josh Gorges and Tomas Plekanec, a talented defensive center who is the poor man’s Anze Kopitar.
Advantage: Slight Canadiens
Tampa Bay: +0.5 Power-Play GVT (18.5%), -0.5 Penalty-Killing GVT (80.7%)
Montreal: -2.9 Power Play GVT (17.2%), +7.4 Penalty-Killing GVT (85.1%)
The Tampa Bay special teams were as close to average as you can get, although there is one important stat to remember: The Lightning scored 5.65 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-4 without Stamkos, but 8.48 with him. You can bet that Stamkos will be on the ice for at least 90% of all Lightning power-plays during this series.
As for Montreal, their special teams were made in the image of the rest of their season. The power-play was slightly below average, a huge step down from 2012-13 when their 20.7% success rate was the fifth-best in the league, while the penalty-killing was average but made to look good by the Montreal goaltending’s 0.900 save percentage at 5-on-4 (the league average was 0.882).
0.891 and 0.904 – The 2013-14 and career save percentages of Anders Lindback. With Ben Bishop injured, Lindback will get the call for Game 1, and possibly more. While it may not seem like much, the difference between a 0.904 save percentage and 0.924 is approximately 0.6 goals per game. In playoff games that will often finish 2-1 or 3-2 and go to overtime, that could make all the difference. History is filled with examples of goaltenders with unspectacular statistics who rise to the occasion in the playoffs, but it also tells us that a goaltender’s career save percentage is probably a decent estimate of his true talent level.
Full disclosure: I am a Montrealer, and it would be nice see the team make a nice run in the playoffs. There is also a tradition of goaltender-fuelled playoff heroics, from Patrick Roy to Jaroslav Halak. In practice, however, there is little statistically to favor the Canadiens except goaltending. The scenario where the Canadiens win the series: Ben Bishop is either injured or returns too soon and plays sub-optimally, Carey Price keeps the team in games, and a few lucky bounces go the team’s way. The scenario where the Lightning win the series: most of the others.
Prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning in 7 games.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider.
Tom Awad is one of the founding authors of Hockey Prospectus, a long-time contributor at ESPN Insider with his Player Power Rankings and Conn Smythe Watch, an author of all four of our annuals, and the creator of all of the Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) metric and the VUKOTA