Were it not for an exhilarating seven game win over the Boston Bruins last spring, the Habs first round dominance of the Tampa Bay Lightning would likely have represented the pinnacle of their 2013-14 season. In three games against the Lightning so far in 2014-15, the Canadiens have not continued to build that monument.
Playing their fourth game of the season against Tampa Bay, the Habs will will look to avoid being dealt the same fate that they handed Stamkos and Co. 11 months ago.
Of course, with one more MTL-TB game before March is out, tonight cannot conclude a season sweep for the Lightning. The game remains significant nonetheless.
The Bolts are Montreal's chief competition for the Atlantic Division crown, and if they could beat the Habs tonight, would propel themselves forward in the chase to catch-up with the New York Rangers for first in the East.
Were it not for an utterly forgettable fortnight in the Province of Quebec, the Canadiens would likely already have the first Eastern seed well in-hand. Instead, they'll have to settle for a chance to rebound, building on an encouraging Saturday performance against another Eastern power.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
|48.8||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||53.8|
|1.18||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.29|
Know Your Enemy
The Tampa Bay Lightning team that takes the ice tonight will look a little different than the one that took the win six nights ago. The Lighning may have earned two points last Tuesday, but they also had three players sustain injuries, forcing Jon Cooper to deviate from the well-defined roles he had established across his lineup.
The Lightning entered last game with a third line of Cedric Paquette, Valtteri Filppula, and Vladislav Namestnikov. The line was put in a sacrificial deployment, and that strategy worked to great effect. Despite receiving a total of zero offensive zone starts, only Paquette came out in the red on possession. In the process, they played the line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Dale Weise to a near-draw, wasting the trio that is often Montreal's only offensive threat.
The Lightning's second line was given the opposite task. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov frequently started their shifts near Carey Price, and without Montreal's top defenders to obstruct them, generated chance after chance on the Canadiens keeper. While P.K. Subban was busy doing his damnedest to make Steven Stamkos' life miserable, that second line mauled the duo of Tom Gilbert and Jeff Petry, to the point that the previously proficient pair had to be split up for a spell in the third period.
That left the Lightning's fourth line, and last game, it was composed of Brian Boyle, Jonathan Drouin, and Brenden Morrow. The line easily overmatched their Canadiens counterparts, as Torrey Mitchell, Brian Flynn, Brandon Prust rarely proved able to escape their own zone. Michel Therrien didn't make their jobs easy, frequently asking the group to start their shifts in their own end, but that group's play was so poor that Therrien was ultimately forced to give in, limiting each player to only 10 minutes or so of ice time.
Two key cogs in this forward management strategy won't be around tonight (Palat and Paquette), while a third player, defender Braydon Coburn, is out as well. Thanks to their impressive depth, the Lightning can simply offset Coburn's absence with the return of Matt Carle. The forward changes make things a little more complicated, however.
The injuries mean that Tampa talent will trickle upwards, so the biggest changes come on the fourth line. Only Morrow remains there, joined by 'tweener J.T. Brown and AHL call-up Mike Angelidis. This configuration deprives Cooper of the luxury of playing talented players against Montreal's chaff, and combined with Montreal's migration of players like Weise and Devante Smith-Pelly to positions lower in the lineup, may even give Les Tricolore a chance to gain some ground if fourth lines are matched head-to-head.
That third Tampa line, thrown to the wolves last time out, should get an easier go this time around. Boyle and Drouin move up to accompany Filppula, and while they'll still be asked to take on Montreal's secondary scorers (perhaps that Alex Galchenyuk, Tomas Plekanec, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau line), Tampa's game against Winnipeg on Sunday would appear to indicate that they can also expect that Cooper will let them take a faceoff outside of their own blueline sometimes, too.
Conversely, if the third line gets a softer deployment, that means Cooper has to rein in his second line as well. With no Palat to man the LW2 spot, Namestnikov will be up with Johnson and Kucherov. The threesome will not likely get the all-out offensive deployment they got last week against Montreal, as they step back a little to compensate for the loss of depth at the bottom of the lineup. Regardless, Namestnikov certainly has the skill to play a scoring role, and will be counted on to supply the chances that Palat had produced consistently.
This is where a Therrien adjustment may prove significant. Jacob De La Rose, impressive as he has been, remains 19 years old, and found out last week that he may not have surpassed Lars Eller just yet. Badly exposed against the Lightning and Islanders last week, JDLR moves to the wing tonight, centred by Eller and likely opposite Dale Weise. With the Habs best defensive pivot back at his natural position, supported by two players capable of playing a fast but responsible game, Therrien may have built himself the type of third line that can slow down high quality lines like Tampa's second.
Last Time Out
If that is not the case, the Habs may be in for another rough ride. Pinning down Stamkos is an achievement in itself, but the Canadiens were hammered in all other departments last time out. Despite a heroic effort by Carey Price, one that may stand up as the best in his pantheon of peerless performances in 2014-15, Montreal would succumb on a deflected overtime goal credited to Johnson.
The game reiterated, again, the importance of Carey Price to the Montreal Canadiens, and showed how Tampa has flipped the script from last spring. In four consecutive wins last year, the Habs broke down the Lightning defence, and without the safety net of Ben Bishop in the Tampa crease, generated enough offence to overcome whatever their opponents could muster in response. This year, it is the Habs who are consistently backed-up on defence, and were it not for their own valuable insurance policy, would likely have been beaten in a fashion even more embarrassing that what has played out so far.
If the Canadiens are to make another playoff run, they will likely have to play through the Lightning, and anything that happens in that potential series will overcome whatever plays out on the ice tonight. The Canadiens made a statement, though, when they swept Tampa last year. Tonight, it is up to the Habs to prevent the Lightning from responding in kind.