For all of the doubt that may have surrounded the Montreal Canadiens at the start of the 2013-14 season, the playoffs have always seemed like a starting line more than a milestone.
When the 2012-13 Habs, coming off one of the most miserable seasons in the history of their franchise, turned their fortunes around and made the playoffs, they did so to the surprise of many around the league.
Sure, we may have known that that the 2011-12 Habs weren't as bad as they looked. After all, there was a lot more circumstance than substance that contributed to the horrific performance two years ago. Nonetheless, when the Canadiens claimed the Eastern Conference's fourth seed, and entered the playoffs as a favourite against the Ottawa Senators, it was as pleasant as it was unexpected.
The outcome of the series was not so pleasant. The Canadiens played like they had all lockout-shortened year, using their speed and skill to out-possess and outscore their opponents. This was never more evident then in Game One, when the Habs carried 62% of shot attempts, and put 80 pucks toward Craig Anderson. Anderson, unflinching, kept his team in the game, and when Montreal carried a 2-1 lead into the third period, this happened:
That Marc Methot slapshot gave Ottawa the lead in a game in which they were being buried, and was ultimately symbolic of a series where the Canadiens could not succeed, no matter their efforts. The Canadiens lost game one, and never again gained traction in the series. When game five ended, and it was the Senators smiling through the handshake line on Bell Centre ice, the Habs knew they would be fighting to get back to where they are right now.
Tale of the Tape
Tonight, the Canadiens need game one to be different, and they have two paths to making that happen.
The preferred route is this: they take their nearly uninjured, superbly talented lineup, and they put it all together. They play to their strengths, using their speed and skill to push the pace against their opponents and put the odds in their favour. They play like the Habs we've glimpsed so rarely of late, be they the post-deadline Habs, or the Murray-less Habs, or 2012-13 Habs.
The probable route is this: they take their world-class goaltender, and they ride him. They leverage their strength on the penalty kill, and make sure that the Lightning's world-class sniper doesn't get clean looks when his team is up a man. Finally, they can take their fast, dangerous forward corps, and make sure they take advantage of their chances against an opponent whose goaltending situation has gone from Vezina to barely viable.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter what route they choose, but no matter what, the Habs' task is clear. Almost 365 days later, the Canadiens are back at the starting line. This year, they need to make sure they don't miss the starter's gun.