Wednesday evening at 7 PM EDT the Montreal Canadiens will begin their playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, with the Bolts securing home ice on the final day of the regular season, on the back of a shootout win that gave them a single point advantage over the Habs.
Such a slim margin of difference between the two clubs suggests that this series is a bit of a toss up, so in our preview we'll be doing our best to dissect the situation and find out who really has the advantage.
The Canadiens had extreme difficulty scoring in the season series against the Lightning. In four games, the Canadiens scored a paltry 4 goals on Ben Bishop, with three games going into extra time, and two of those going into a shootout. Montreal's lone victory over the Lightning took place in the shootout, so they technically have not beaten them at hockey this season.
However Ben Bishop is not healthy to begin the series, with his backup Anders Lindback being the likely starter. Although Lindback finished the season hot, he had a below replacement level saver percentage for the Lightning in 2013-14, and has been below league average save percentage the two seasons prior to that.
Carey Price put up an astounding .956 save percentage against the Lightning this year, with an even more impressive .972 save percentage at even strength, stopping 104 of 107 shots. Yet even with that spectacular goaltending, Price recorded losses in three of four appearances. How did that happen? Let's take a look at possession.
In the following graphical assault, the Montreal Canadiens will be represented in red, and the Tampa Bay Lightning in blue.
As you can see, no matter what metric we use, and no matter what situation we look at, Tampa Bay outplayed the Canadiens this season in the season series by a significant margin. Fenwick is closer than the other metrics, but there is noise, and there is signal. What you're seeing here is signal, the Lightning were the better team in the season series.
Head to head
The season series and the regular season generalities can give us some insight, but we can go far more in depth than that. In order to do so we're going to start by breaking down the team's top players, head to head.
With Ben Bishop seemingly out for the first round, it's Anders Lindback who Carey Price will be taking on in the crease.
Goaltending - Advantage Canadiens
This was never really in doubt. With Ben Bishop in net the competition would have been closer, but even with Bishop in, Price is more experienced, had a superior season, and is a better athlete, instead of just being big. Lindback is still a giant, but he's not nearly as mobile as Bishop, and isn't even really a good backup. Any goalie can get hot over a seven game stretch and cause another team some problems, but based on their careers thus far, everything suggests that goalie is far more likely to be Price .
Top defensemen - Even
In a normal year, the Canadiens have a fairly sizable advantage on this front, but Michel Therrien has been consistently undermining P.K. Subban's instincts all season, and it's seen a steep decline in his level of play. He's still among the top 10-15 defensemen in the NHL, but last season he was the undisputed best, and by a fairly significant margin. Andrei Markov has had a bounceback year, and although both he and Subban had excellent relative numbers against Tampa in the season series, and in the regular season overall, the rest of the team was so bad that their raw numbers look middling at best.
Fans have begun to wake up to Victor Hedman's talent level, but Matt Carle remains an underappreciated minute eater who can rack up points and play against tough competition, freeing up Hedman to play the easier minutes and crush teams into oblivion.
Top forwards - Advantage Lightning
The raw numbers may not back it up at first glance, but it's important to remember that Steven Stamkos missed more than 50% of the season, and still scored 25 goals. Tampa Bay also boasts two trustworthy defensive players among their top scorers in Ondrej Palat and Valtteri Filppula.
The top line of Max Pacioretty with David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek is dynamic once they get into the offensive zone, but outside of it Pacioretty is often left defending on his own, with Vanek waiting for an outlet pass and Desharnais ineffectively trying to check players. The line has had some fantastic results so far, but they've been outchanced and outplayed heavily more often than not, and eventually it will bite them.
How will it shake out?
The Lightning have outplayed the Canadiens in the season series. They've been the better team for almost the entire season. With that said, the goaltender advantage that Montreal has right now is very large, and if both goaltenders perform at their season average numbers, and these teams continue to play each other the exact same way, the Canadiens should theoretically outscore the Lightning 20-18 in a seven game series.
You might be thinking that's a lot closer than expected, considering the gap in goaltending talent, but that's how wide the margin is that Tampa Bay has outshot Montreal this season. In order to ensure the Canadiens win the series, if Michel Therrien can not adjust his system and personnel usage, Carey Price is going to have to be even better than he was in the regular season, and by a lot, because it's unlikely that Lindback will be as terrible as he was in the regular season.
If Lindback puts up a league average .915 save percentage in the series, and the Canadiens continue to be outplayed at the same rate, over seven games the Canadiens would be outscored 18-16. A lot of people believe that this series is an automatic win because of Ben Bishop's injury, but it is going to be extremely close.
Usually when people mention x-factors in playoff previews, they talk about players, but for this series, everything comes down to coaching. Michel Therrien has been stumbling his way through the season like an idiot savant, benching his best player and destroying his confidence on an ego trip, yet winning anyway due to spectacular goaltending and opportune goals. That won't win in the playoffs.
Therrien is going to have to adjust, he's going to have to find a way to get the Canadiens back to what they were last season, or this is going to be a short playoff run for Montreal yet again.