In a series that flipped expectations on its head, the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens in six games, ending the season of likely league MVP Carey Price.
The story line to begin was whether or not Price and the Canadiens could upend a season of misery versus the Lightning who went undefeated against Montreal in the regular season after being swept in the playoffs by the Habs in 2014. In the regular season Tampa was a possession monster versus a Montreal club that struggled to own the puck. The suggestion was that if Montreal could garner more possession, the all-world goaltending of Price would be enough to get them over the hump.
Ironically the Habs did control possession for long stretches in the series, but their low shooting percentages and poor penalty killing led to yet more losses against an undaunted Lightning side. Tampa’s Ben Bishop ended up building upon a respectable first round, and now has a .931 save percentage in the playoffs thanks to an onslaught of point shots he faced from Montreal attackers.
Price on the other hand—while excellent at even strength—posted a .756 save percentage on shots from high-danger zones, unable to come up big when his team needed it most. Most of the damage for Tampa was done on the power play as they scored seven goals with the man advantage on only 24 shots. The only way the Canadiens could effectively limit the Lightning on the power play was to play an entire game without going shorthanded as they did in Game 5, which, not surprisingly, ended as a 2-1 victory for the Habs.
Offensively for Montreal, up until the fourth game, few of the point shots they managed were of the dangerous variety, and their shot distributions skewed towards lower-danger attempts, with just 24.7 percent of their shots being from the high-danger slot area. In contrast 26.8 percent of the Lightning’s shots came from high danger areas.
This had the effect of driving down the Habs’ shooting percentage and, while they had the possession advantage, were relatively inconsistent at pressing the puck into positions where it could swing play significantly in their favour. The 14 posts they hit in the series will also be a firm reminder that luck has a way of turning in unpredictable ways.
Max Pacioretty led Montreal’s scoring in the series with three goals and five points, but most of that output came in the Game 4, 6-2 blowout for the Habs. Meanwhile names like Lars Eller and Dale Wiese—so prominent in the opening round against Ottawa—could do little to push Montreal offensively. Brendan Gallagher put forth his typical yeoman’s effort in front of the opposition goal, but rarely was that parlayed into scoring, and he never seemed to be close to getting Bishop off his game.
Tampa saw its top performers produce as expected in the series. Steven Stamkos woke up offensively with three goals and seven points in the series. Nikita Kucherov had his coming-out party, setting the tone with the overtime winner in the series opener and then scoring the first and final goals of the elimination game. Last year, Kucherov found himself in the press box in the playoffs, deemed unprepared for the grind. This year against the Habs he posted six goals and seven points. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat were also consistent threats alongside their Russian linemate, while Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman provided the top-notch defence worthy of a Stanley Cup contender.
Montreal has a number of questions heading into the off-season, likely topped by whether they think Michel Therrien is the coach to lead this team in the future. There are criticisms surrounding his roster usag, and the systems he implemented in the regular season that had the Canadiens posting uninspiring possession results. Seeing if they can find a way to get Jeff Petry’s name on a contract before he goes UFA will also likely be a priority and the team should also seek scoring depth in the off-season if it can make additions without subtracting significant pieces from the current roster.
Tampa Bay has to be considered a serious threat to win the Eastern Conference, though that likelihood may shift depending on who wins the pending seventh game between New York and Washington. Should the Rangers win, they will have home-ice advantage in the next round and the road gets tougher for the Lightning. If this series was any indication though, the Lightning won’t mind starting away from home and they should be confident after knocking off a great defensive team in Detroit and arguably the league’s best goaltender in Price.
Whoever their next opponent is, they’re likely to feel a jolt from this dangerous Lightning squad.