Brossard, QUEBEC — After capping the regular season with the best scoring average in the NHL (3.16 goals per game) the Tampa Bay Lightning’s offence continued to carry them through the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, recording the highest scoring average of any Eastern Conference team (2.43 goals per game).
But while the Lightning’s offence thrives, the opposite is true of the Canadiens.
After finishing 20th in scoring in the regular season (2.61 goal per game), Montreal continued to struggle on offence in Round 1 as only the Pittsburgh Penguins registered fewer goals per game than the Canadiens’ 2.00 average.
Montreal’s power play was 1-for-20 in their series against the Ottawa Senators, which is considerably worse than their 16.5 percent success rate in the regular season.
Heading into Round 2, you’d think Montreal’s emphasis would be on finding a way to match Tampa’s offence, but shutting down the Lightning’s speedy attack was a more present thought in Montreal’s room after practice. After all, the Canadiens allowed 21 goals in five regular season contests against Tampa Bay this year.
Eleven Tampa players hit the goal column in Round 1 against the Detroit Red Wings – and leading regular season scorer Steven Stamkos wasn’t one of them.
“This is the playoffs and we know it as well as anybody that you can key [in] on certain players as much as you want,” said Norris finalist P.K. Subban. “We know at this time of the season third and fourth line players can make the difference in games as well.”
We probably shouldn’t be surprised defence is the main focus for the Canadiens. Before discovering the Lightning would be Montreal’s next opponent, GM Marc Bergevin explained his team’s philosophy to reporters on Wednesday.
“My mentality, and I’m very firm on this, is you’re going to win games with good defence,” Bergevin said. “I won’t change that. We’d certainly like to add scoring to the team, but not at the cost of our defence.”
But how can the Canadiens effectively defend against the ferocious pace at which Tampa plays?
The Lightning’s variety of scoring options is a product of speed, and nobody represents that better than Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. The trio combined for 14 points against Detroit despite wearing three-time Selke winner Pavel Datsyuk like a defensive blanket for a significant portion of Round 1.
Their speed in transition was highlighted all series and particularly in Game 6 when they scored the crucial third goal of the game that ultimately forced Game 7 back in Tampa Bay.
The Johnson line was also great against Montreal this season, combining for 13 points in five games.
“We gotta play right in their face and play disciplined without the puck,” said Lars Eller, who figures to be a key player in Montreal’s defensive strategy.
Eller expanded on the concept: “You [try to eliminate speed] as early as possible; you do it before they get out of their zone. You need forwards to back-check hard for our [defence] to be able to have a good gap and be right in their face, so it just means [put] the puck in the right area and be smart and lots of skating.”
Subban knows a thing or two about eliminating the opposition’s speed through the middle of the ice.
“We need to be confident with the puck in making plays; manage the puck well to not commit turnovers,” Subban said, while reminding that the Canadiens faced a similar challenge against the Senators. “We have to limit their time and space. You need to have good sticks in the neutral zone, tracking back through the middle, and communication.”
Tomas Plekanec is considered Montreal’s best two-way forward and he’s likely to see a lot of Tampa’s most offensive trio.
“[The Johnson line] is great,” Plekanec noted. “They’re fast, young kids with a lot of energy; smart and skilled; they have everything they need. It’ll be hard to shut them out. But, all five guys on the ice have to do a good job.”
And if the Lightning’s top forwards make it through Montreal’s five-man unit, Vezina and Hart Trophy finalist Carey Price will hold the last line of defence.
“They have a high octane offence and it’s definitely going to be a big challenge,” said Price.
As for scouting the Lightning, Price defers to his instincts.
“I think it’s a good idea to do some video, maybe get an idea of how well guys shoot,” said Price. “But as far as seeing tendencies, it’s not a good idea to start relying on video because the game is about reading and reacting.”
The Canadiens begin their defensive assignment against the Lightning on Friday at the Bell Centre, where coach Michel Therrien will have the advantage of setting the matchups.