If the Montreal Canadiens hockey operations team is looking forward to the Lightning, they're probably going to feel like they've seen this opponent before.
Venturing into the Bell Centre this evening will be a team that's off to surprisingly hot start. That team, reliant on a few key cogs to produce some gaudy offensive numbers, comes into their game with the Habs at the top of their conference standings.
That team will also be riding the confidence of early success under a precocious new coach, a man who was primed for a NHL job for some time now.
That team may also struggle with their goaltending and defensive consistency, and may not have the possession numbers one might expect from a conference-leading squad. Nevertheless, that team will be looking to take it's early season hot streak and keep on rolling.
The Habs played their worst game of the year in the Rockies, losing 4-1 to Patrick Roy's team while failing to sustain pressure against a young, skilled group. Coming off one of their stronger efforts, the Canadiens will seek to manufacture a different result tonight.
Of course, if there's one major difference between the Avs and Bolts, it may just be the absence of one of those aforementioned key cogs. In a freak collision during yesterday's matchup with the Boston Bruins, Steven Stamkos suffered a broken tibia that will leave him out indefinitely. New coach Jon Cooper's recipe for success is to rely on his star players, Stamkos and former Hart Trophy Laureate Martin St. Louis, in a way that Michel Therrien wouldn't dream of, meaning that the Lightning may be suffering some serious culture shock tonight.
The numbers illustrate Stamkos' impact on the game. He leads the NHL in goals and points as of his injury, striking fear into opposing goaltenders with his trademark one-timer. The Lightning centre has conveyed those skills into a frightening 69-goal pace, and he is personally responsible for an outrageous 31% of the Lightning's even strength goals. Put in the context of Montreal's leading even strength goal scorer, Brendan Gallagher (Gallagher's 5 of Montreal's 26 even strength goals = 19%), it is immediately apparent that Stamkos if absolutely critical to the Lightning's offensive output.
The former Sarnia Sting is also good for twenty minutes per game, while holding his ground against tough competition without much zone sheltering. Even with the venerable St. Louis skating beside him, Stamkos is simply irreplaceable.
The Lightning also have another significant injury, as top-four defender Sami Salo will not play either. With pressure already laden on Radko Gudas and Matt Carle to play the role of shutdown pair, the pressure on Victor Hedman to anchor a second pair that doesn't have a great option to replace Salo will be amplified.
The other Tampa player likely to feel the impact of a weakened D corps is goaltender Ben Bishop, the erstwhile Ottawa Senator who has been a huge part of driving TB's early success. The towering Bishop, famous in Montreal for playing frustrating well against the Habs during his time with the Sens, has an 11-2 record and .927 save percentage to start the year so far. The Habs were able to get to Bishop last year, however, sweeping their season series with the Lightning before sweeping their division mates for good measure. If the Habs are to win tonight, they'll likely need at least the three goals they put past Bishop when they last met in April.
The Habs best insurance against a poor offensive performance is goalie Carey Price, who is making brilliant performances into a nightly routine. Price is 7-7-1 after taking a victory against the Islanders on Sunday, and will look to put forth another effort befitting of his impressive .929 save percentage to-date. Price is 9-6-2 against Tampa in his career, earning only a .909 save percentage against the high-scoring Lightning. With the bulk of the Bolts' scoring responsibility now placed on Martin St. Louis, CP31 may even be able tolerate another night of Douglas Murray playing in front of him.
For a Florida-based outlook on the prospects for Tampa's season (written prior to Stamkos' injury), a game preview from down South, and a real life demonstration of the Kubler-Ross model in action, check out Raw Charge.
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