Game Start Time
April 16th, 2014
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens will fight for an early postseason edge on Wednesday when they Bolts host the Habs in Game 1 of a best-of-seven playoff series.
This first-round encounter pits the second and third-place team from the Atlantic Division against each other. Tampa finished with 101 points, beating the Canadiens by one point for home-ice advantage in the opening round.
The 2013-14 regular-season series between the Lightning and Habs was extremely close with the clubs splitting four meetings, three of which were decided after regulation. The largest margin of victory came in the most recent encounter when Tampa Bay recorded a 3-1 home win on April 1.
The first two games of this series are in Tampa, which also hosts Game 2 on Friday. The Lightning were 25-10-6 as the home club in 2013-14, but Montreal was solid on the road, going 23-15-3 as the guest this season.
Tampa had lost three straight at home against the Canadiens before winning the encounter on April 1.
The Lightning are led by star centerman Steven Stamkos, who is one of the most dangerous snipers in the league. This will be the 24-year-old's first playoff run as team captain, however, as he took over the "C" after Tampa traded Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers in early March.
Stamkos missed months with a broken leg this season before returning to action in early March. Even without their top offensive weapon for much of the season, Tampa was able to post an average of 2.83 goals per game to place ninth in the NHL rankings.
Tampa Bay survived without Stamkos in part due to the play of Ben Bishop between the pipes, but the No. 1 goaltender will not be available for Game 1 due to an upper-body injury suffered on April 8.
Bishop's absence leaves Anders Lindback as the de facto No. 1 option in net. Although the 25-year-old Swede was just 8-12-2 with a 2.90 GAA and .891 save percentage this season, his play since Bishop went down to injury earlier this month should inspire more confidence than those season totals. Lindback was named the NHL's First Star for the final week of the regular season after posting a record of 3-0-0 with a goals-against average of 0.67 and a .975 save percentage.
Lindback's lone playoff appearance came in relief for Nashville during the 2011 postseason. Kristers Gudlevskis, who expects to back up Lindback, saw action in his first NHL game on April 11 against Columbus and recorded the win with 36 saves.
"We did not want his first game to be a playoff game," Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said of Gudlevskis. "We wanted him to feel the environment and get this out of the way and he was up to the task."
Montreal, meanwhile, hopes goaltender Carey Price can be the team's strength in this series.
Price, who anchored Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, had one of his finest NHL campaigns in 2013-14. The 26-year-old went 34-20-5 over 59 games and set career bests in both GAA (2.32) and save percentage (.927). The playoffs have been a struggle for Price, however, as he owns a 2.90 GAA and .905 save percentage over 30 career postseason appearances with the Habs.
Price was 1-1-2 with an excellent 1.41 GAA in four games against the Bolts in 2013-14.
Montreal's offense finished 21st in the NHL with just 2.55 goals per game, but Max Pacioretty was clearly the best offensive weapon for Montreal, pumping in a career-best 39 goals in 73 games to go with his team-leading 60 points. Still, the 25-year-old American has never scored in the postseason, failing to register a single point over four career playoff games.
Habs general manager Marc Bergevin realized his team's lack of offense at the trade deadline and brought in sniper Thomas Vanek to try and help boost the club's scoring. Vanek, who started the season in Buffalo before getting dealt to the New York Islanders and eventually Montreal, recorded 15 points (6g, 9a) in 18 games with Montreal down the stretch. Overall, he had 27 goals and 68 points in 78 combined games with Buffalo, New York and the Canadiens.
Vanek has 15 goals and five assists over 36 career playoff games
This series marks only the second playoff meeting between these franchises. The Lightning made quick work of the Canadiens back in the 2004 conference quarterfinals, sweeping Montreal in four games while outscoring the Habs 14-5.