Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Post Season Preview! Lightning Are Back in the Playoffs!

C'mon Stanley would order way more than that from room service!

I thought that I had a great beginning for this post. “THE LIGHTNING HAVE NEVER LOST A PLAYOFF SERIES TO A CANADIAN TEAM!” Sadly, five seconds of research reminded me that Tampa was bounced in five games by the Ottawa Senators in 2006. So with that idea blown I put my laptop away, fired up Netflix and watched three episodes of “Dawson's Creek”.

However, I can say that, “Despite their long and illustrious history, the Montreal Canadiens have NEVER WON A PLAYOFF GAME AGAINST TAMPA!” Granted they've only met once and it was on the Lighting's 2004 March to Glory, but I'm never one to let small details get in the way of my point of view.

With the regular season winding down it was known rather early on that barring a collapse of Toronto Maple Leaf-ian proportions the Lightning would be facing the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. I had no problem with that match up. As a matter of fact, among the Eastern Conference finalists they are most likely the ideal opponent for the Bolts.

Even though the Lightning took three of the four regular season games between the two clubs, only one of the games was decided by more than one goal (and that game featured an empty netter at the end) and three of the four meetings went to extra hockey. So look forward to some bonus hockey in this series!

The Lightning's strength (offense) matches up with Montreal's strength (keeping the puck out of the net) on both regular play and on special teams. While it's a stretch to say that the Lightning's power play is a “strength” it is better than their ability to kill penalties. Luckily for them, the Canadiens are almost as inept on the power play as the Lightning are on the penalty kill. Special teams should cancel each other out.

Tampa Bay's offense is deeper than Montreal's despite the deadline acquisition of Lightning-killer Thomas Vanek. The Lightning boost an offense with four 20 goal scorers and seven skaters with double digit goal totals. That's depth right there folks. Of course lingering in the background, kind of not being mentioned is the fact that two of those skaters – Valtteri Filppula and Ondrej Palat – are banged up. While both are scheduled to go in game one, if they were to miss any significant time it could be damaging to the team's playoff hopes.

While Ben Bishop won the team MVP race by 13 lengths, Filppula has been the glue that held the offense together while Stamkos was out of the lineup. His solid play kind of goes unnoticed from time to time until you look at the score sheet and see that he had two assists or a goal and an assist. His ability to move the puck in crowds also opens up the ice for Stamkos or Palat on the power play.

Palat went from “Oh yeah, he's a rookie, too” to “Legitimate Calder Hopeful” and two-time rookie of the month. He has an uncanny ability to be in the right place to score goals despite not being the biggest, fastest or best player on the ice. His injury has yet to be diagnosed beyond “upper body” but was most likely caused when he was trucked by Columbus' Jack Johnson last week.

Of course the six-foot-seven sized elephant in the room is Ben Bishop and his health. He has already been ruled out of the first game and is questionable for the rest of the series with his creaky left elbow. That means Anders Lindback will get the call when the puck is dropped at the Forum Wednesday night.

Or Gudas. He can play net. Look at that butterfly!

Even the most ardent Lightning supporter would have to give the edge in net to the Canadiens if Bishop is out for a long stretch. As the eternal optimist I've found a way for this to work to the Lightning's benefit. The weight of the Canadian (country not team) world is now on the shoulders of Carey Price. Remember, all of Canada must rally around the one franchise in the True North that has a chance to win the Cup. Price has come through for his country before.

For his professional team? Not so much. He's one of the best damn goaltenders in the league yet the furthest in the playoffs the storied franchise has found themselves with him in net is the Eastern Conference finals in 2010. And they got smoked 4-1 by the Flyers that match-up. Oh yeah, and Price only played in four games during the playoffs as he had lost his starting job to Jaroslav Halak.

Couple that with the Canadiens (team not country) 21st ranked 2.55 goals per game offense and Price NEEDS to be great for them to advance. Meanwhile, anything better than outright garbage from Lindback should be enough for the Lightning to advance to the next round in the NHL's Sweet Sixteen tournament. Of course, it would set up a nice plot line should Lindback play out of his mind against Montreal and Bishop declare himself healthy. What would Coach Cooper do? Stay with the hot goalie or the one that got you to the playoffs?

That's getting a bit ahead of ourselves though.

Let's break it down to the three things the Lightning need to do to win the series:
  1. Score goals. Simply put they need to use their strength, offense, to mask the deficiencies they have in the net. In his last 8 games Steven Stamkos has only found the back of the net twice. That's not good. I'm all for secondary scoring, but in the playoffs the best player on the ice has to be the best player on the ice. It doesn't matter if he's on the wing or at center, he has to find his scoring touch in order to make life easier for Tyler Johnson, Palat and Filppula.
  2. Stay out of the penalty box. Yes, Montreal's power play isn't on par with the Penguins or Bruins, but that doesn't mean the Lightning can have a steady stream of players going to the sin bin. Even if the other team isn't scoring, every penalty is two minutes that your team isn't on offense (although Tyler Johnson and his 5 shorties might beg to differ). Plus extended shorthand time tends to lead to more shots given up. The Lightning are best off minimizing the shots fired in Lindback's direction, not increasing them. Which leads to the final point.
  3. Block shots. Yes it leads to bruises and increases the risk of Ryan Callahan missing games, but they have to, have to, have to, have to cut down on the number of shots that get to Lindback. Or even Bishop should he come back in the series. They need to get in the way of shots, control the puck and set up their counter attack.
Try not to use your face to block shots, boys!

Prediction time! The only thing that I'm worse at doing than predictions is writing consistently. If even one of these comes true it will be a miracle.

Winner – Lightning in 6
Number of OT games – 4
Longest OT – 3
X Factor – PK Subban
Leading Scorer Lightning – Stamkos
Leading Scorer Canadiens – Vanek
Number of Games Bishop plays – 4
Number of Games Gudlevskis plays – 0 (please God let it be 0)
Lindback's GAA/SV% - 2.89/91.7
Number of games BJ Crombeen suits up - 2
Number of Radko Gudas hip-checks – 3
Number of Radko Gudas missed hip-checks – also 3
Number of times announcers say “old school hockey” when Gudas connects on a hip-check -13
Role Player who has surprisingly good series – Tom Pyatt
Will JT Brown score a goal – Yes

Good luck Lightning!

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