The Montreal Canadiens couldn't have envisioned a more perfect start to their series.
They immediately moved to neutralize home-ice advantage in Game 1, using territorial domination to prevent the Lightning from ever sustaining a lead, and eventually, it was the Habs who were in the lead as the last seconds ticked off the clock.
In Game 2, anticipating that a skilled and well-coached Tampa team would come out firing, the Habs played a tighter game, greatly mitigating the type of high quality scoring chances that exposed Carey Price in Game 1.
Now, with the series firmly within their grasp, the Habs must find a way to keep the Bolts from getting up off the mat.
The first ingredient in Montreal's recipe from a Game 3 victory is consistency. Michel Therrien formulated an ideal lineup to match-up against Tampa, and that lineup will remain unchanged from the first two games. The Habs really haven't had a bad performance by a line so far in the series, and with Douglas Murray removed from their defensive group, the back-end has looked much more reliable as well. With a veteran group of Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin, P.K. Subban, and Josh Gorges occupying the lion's share of the defensive minutes, as was likely intended at the beginning of the season, it's been difficult for the Lightning to gain any traction.
Heading into the series, and especially after Game 1, it became clear that any Montreal success would be predicated on shutting down Steven Stamkos. After the Toronto native was an absolute monster in Game 1, he was largely absent in Game 2. Stamkos thrived in the face of absurdly difficult deployment in Game 1, and even though he wasn't asked to begin his shift in the defensive zone as often in Game 2, he still seemed unable to threaten the Habs the way he did in Game 1.
Now that last change is in the hands of the Habs, it'll be interesting to see if Stamkos' match-up changes. Following a similar pattern to Game 1, he saw a lot of Markov-Emelin early on, before the trend evaporated as Tampa fell behind. The difference is that instead of lining up head-to-head with the Habs offence-oriented PDV line, Stamkos more frequently saw Tomas Plekanec checking him in line 2. Therrien knows that his Selke-level defender is his best weapon in holding down Stamkos, and so whether or not he pushes to make sure the Stamkos sees the Habs' toughest checkers, or instead relies on more of a zone-based deployment, will be big questions leading into tonight's contest.
Finally, the Canadiens will have to cope with a Lightning team that has a little more firepower, as rookie scorer Ondrej Palat (second on the team in regular season scoring, behind only Martin St. Louis) looks set to return this evening. Palat was one of Tampa's best weapons before he left Game 1, playing sidekick to Stamkos as they resisted the surging Habs. His return allows Alex Killorn to likely move back to the second line, restoring some balance in what can be a toothless top six outside of Tampa's formidable Captain.
For two games, Michel Therrien has helped Habs fans to put aside bad memories of a seemingly mismanaged regular season, showing that he can help his team win, even when play is on Tampa's terms. Tonight, we'll see how the game plan changes when Therrien is in control.