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Canadiens vs Lightning playoff series preview

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For the second time in two years, the Montreal Canadiens will be taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs. This time though, it won't be so easy.

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Remember last year when the Montreal Canadiens swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs? You know who has an extremely vivid memory of that? Steve Yzerman.

After the Canadiens completely exploited the Lightning's big, lumbering, immobile defense during that series, Yzerman quickly went to work remaking his defense core in order to better handle quick teams. Gone are Eric Brewer, Radko Gudas, Mike Kostka, Sami Salo, and Keith Aulie, and in are Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, and Brayden Coburn.

What's perhaps most impressive about Yzerman's reworking of his defense is that along with getting more mobile and more talented, he didn't really lose much size, and he didn't give up many assets in the process.

The result of that changeup on defense was the Lightning demolishing the Canadiens in the season series, outscoring them by nearly triple over five games, and owning the possession game in every possible way. I'm not going to bore you with numbers for this one though, we already did that when looking at Ottawa, and the split is relatively similar, though bigger. What I want to look at is how these teams match up overall, and what the keys to the series will be.

Left side defense a problem for Habs

Andrei Markov promised that he would have a better second round after about five highlight reel mistakes against Ottawa in round one, but the left side defense for the Canadiens remains a serious problem against the Lightning. For starters, the Lightning attack with speed through the neutral zone and prefer to carry the puck in. The Canadiens have a habit of giving up the blueline and retreating to the net, allowing opponents too much freedom with the puck.

This strategy hurts even more when your left side defense consists of Markov, who can not handle forwards attacking with speed very well after multiple knee injuries, Alexei Emelin, who could never handle forwards attacking with speed, has no hockey sense to speak of, and is extremely slow, and Tom Gilbert, who is better at dealing with speed, but playing his off side and vulnerable.

Expect players like Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov to be constantly attacking on the left side, using their speed to burn the Habs' defensemen. The Canadiens counteracted this last series with extremely aggressive plays in the neutral zone, but that didn't work at all in the regular season.

Neutral zone play for the Canadiens will be extremely important, they're going to want to force the Lightning to either dump the puck in, or bring it in on the right side so it's P.K. Subban or Jeff Petry defending for 50 minutes per night instead.

Bishop isn't special, but he's bad for the Habs

The Canadiens' offense looked horrible against the Senators after Hammond was taken out in favour of Anderson. Part of that was due to some poor luck on the powerplay, part of it was Anderson playing well, but the biggest factor was the Canadiens failing to generate quality scoring chances by making him move laterally.

Ben Bishop is an average goaltender who happens to be a giant, and he can be exposed when he's forced to move around, but the way the Canadiens attack doesn't do that. When the Habs do carry the puck in, which is rare to begin with, they often cut wide and take a bad angle shot from the boards, hoping for a rebound. Sometimes there's a player driving the middle, but it hasn't been a common occurrence that this center lane driving player gets the puck. More often than not it's a relatively harmless shot that gets picked up by astute defensemen, and cleared.

This can work against Hammonds and Fleurys of the world, goalies who often let in brutal goals, but not against a goaltender who takes up 90% of the net just by standing there. The Canadiens are going to have to move the puck a lot better, and get creative through the middle of the ice in order to score on Tampa Bay, something we haven't seen from them since the lockout-shortened year.

Special teams futility

The Canadiens and Lightning have the two worst powerplays of the eight teams left in the playoffs, with the Canadiens being slightly worse, and Montreal also has the 2nd worst penalty kill of any team remaining in the playoffs. In order for the Canadiens to have any chance whatsoever in this series, they have to win the special teams battle against the Lightning.

The penalty kill likely isn't something the Canadiens are very worried about, because they were solid there all season long, but the powerplay has been atrocious for two full years now, with no inclination that anyone on the coaching staff is willing to change it.

The Canadiens have seemingly made some changes to the personnel, with Petry taking Markov's spot on the top unit; meaning that Subban will be a bit more free to challenge for deeper shooting locations since he can trust his partner to outskate opponents if the puck is turned over, and Lars Eller is rotating with Alex Galchenyuk on the second unit, which is good for Eller but confusing since Galchenyuk was the Habs' second best forward on the powerplay all season long.

Tampa Bay is exploitable

Jon Cooper is an odd coach in a few different ways. First of all, he trusts youth much more than the average coach (Jonathan Drouin notwithstanding), but secondly, he doesn't give his big studs on defense huge minutes.

While you can expect Subban to play upwards of 28 minutes per game in this series, with Petry and Markov likely playing between 24 and 26 each, Cooper keeps Victor Hedman around 22 minutes on average, and Anton Stralman under 22.

What this means is, even though Tampa Bay upgraded their defense this year, their best players play less than the best players on Montreal. That could theoretically mean they're fresher, but it could also give the Habs a bigger opportunity to exploit the bottom of their lineup. Tampa Bay is a good team, but they're not perfect.

Room for optimism

Beyond the matchup game, there is actual room for optimism for the Canadiens in this series. In fact, if we look at the exact same thing we looked at with Ottawa, the Canadiens finished the series stronger in score-adjusted possession than the Lightning did.

Lightning vs Habs possession

Obviously the red-blue line is the Habs, and the grey-blue line is the Lightning. Using five game moving averages, the Habs actually had a pretty strong finish to the season. There's not a big gap, and the Lightning were significantly better for most of the season, and especially overall, but that's what the Habs have, and it's not nothing.

Also, there's this: