Then: The 2003-2004 incarnation of the Montreal Canadiens finished the season 41-30-7-4 for 93 points under head coach Claude Julien, which was good enough for 4th place in the NHL's Northeast division. The Habs struggled to close out the campaign winning only once in their final 6 games and limped into the playoffs as a seventh seed set to face their longstanding rivals, the Boston Bruins.
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The Tampa Bay Lightning however enjoyed an immensely successful season under head coach John Tortorella, finishing 46-22-8-6 for 106 points and 1st place in the Southeast division. The Bolts would enter the playoffs as the first seed in the east(2 points ahead of Boston), and face off against the #8 seed New York Islanders.
Now: The 2013-2014 Habs finished third in the Atlantic division with a 46-28-8 and 100 points under head coach Michel Therrien. Unlike their counterparts from 10 years ago this team has not limped into the playoffs, going 7-2-1 in their final 10 games and claiming a matchup, against the Lightning in the opening round.
The Leading Scorers
Then: The 03-04 Habs were lacking a bit in terms of offensive output, especially compared to their Tampa Bay opponents who boasted five players over 55 points on the year. The Habs were led by none other than Mike Ribeiro, who posted 65 points(20G, 45A) in 81 games played, followed closely by Michael Ryder who had a solid 63 points(25G, 38A). Rounding out the top 5 was long time captain Saku Koivu(14G, 41A), Richard Zednik(26G, 24A), and Sheldon Souray(15G, 20A).
The Lightning had one of the top scoring lineups in the East which was led by surefire Hockey Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis, who posted an outstanding 94 points(38G, 56A). Following behind St. Louis was Cory Stillman(25G, 55A), Brad Richards(26G, 53A), Vincent Lecavalier(32G, 34A), and Fredrik Modin(29G, 28A).
Now: Ten years later and the Canadiens boast one of their deepest rosters since their last Cup win in 1993. Leading the way is trade deadline pickup Thomas Vanek(27G, 41A) who was acquired from the Islanders for prospect Sebastian Collberg and a 2nd round pick. Right behind Vanek is streaky, perimeter player Max Pacioretty(39G, 21A) and defensive liability and Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban(10G, 43A). Rounding out the top 5 is the much maligned David Desharnais who overcame a horrendous start to the year to end up with 52 points(16G, 36A), and a tie between Tomas Plekanec (20G, 23A) and Andrei Markov (7G, 36A).
The most recent Tampa team boasted a very familiar name leading the way in Martin St. Louis(29G, 32A), but the long time Lightning forward was traded to the New York Rangers at the deadline this season. With Steven Stamkos nursing a broken leg for the majority of the season, Ondrej Palat would pick up the slack with 59 points(23G, 36A). Valtteri Filppula(25G, 33A), Victor Hedman(13G, 42A) and Tyler Johnson(24 G 26 A) make up the remainder of the top 5 for Tampa Bay.
Then: One similarity between these two Habs teams was that they both had big name goaltenders with relatively well known backups. Jose Theodore would lead the 03-04 Habs with a 33-28-5 record with a .919 SV% and 2.27 GAA. Backing up Theodore would be Mathieu Garon who in limited starts would post an 8-6-2 record with a .921 SV % and a 2.27 GAA.
Tampa Bay relied on Nikolai Khabibulin to carry the majority of their starts and the "Bulin Wall" responded with a 28-19-7 record along with a .910 SV % and 2.33 GAA. Backing up Khabibulin was John Grahame who posted a tidy 18-9-1 record with a .913 SV % and 2.06 GAA.
Now: This past season's success for the Canadiens can be attributed largely to the play of starting goalie and Olympic gold medalist Carey Price. Price would post a 34-20-5 record with a .927 SV% and a 2.32 GAA which has landed the star goalie square in the middle of Vezina contention. Backing up Price is the Bruin killer Peter Budaj who managed a 10-8-3 record while posting a .909 SV% and 2.51 GAA.
While Price is in the Vezina conversation the Lightning boast a contender of their own in Ben Bishop. Before suffering an injury while diving for a puck Bishop posted an outstanding 37-14-7 record with a .924 SV% and 2.23 GAA. If Bishop is unable to start in the opening round series the Lightning will turn to Ander Lindback who backed up Bishop all year. Lindback has struggled and put up a 7-12-2 record with a .888 SV% and a 3.05 GAA.
What Happened Last Time
The 03-04 Habs rolled into the first round against the Boston Bruins and hoped to pull off yet another upset, much like they did in 2002. The Canadiens got the series off to a poor start going down two games to none while only scoring 1 goal on Andrew Raycroft. After winning game three, Montreal go down 3-1 in the series, and had to battle back to win three straight games and complete the stunning upset over the Bruins.
Tampa Bay would have much less difficulty with the New York Islanders as they shutout the the eighth seeded team three times over the five game series. Martin St. Louis would eliminate the Islanders in overtime of Game 5 and set up a showdown with the Montreal Canadiens.
Much like the series against Boston, the Canadiens put themselves in a hole early in the series as the team's offense once again sputtered against Khabibulin. Game 1 would be a nightmare for the Habs as Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier would each post three point nights, while chasing Jose Theodore out of the nets in favor of Mathieu Garon. Khabibulin on the other hand was flawless on the night, and stopped all 21 shots directed at him for his 4th shutout of the playoffs. Game 2 would not be much better for Montreal as Lecavalier would score two goals and Modin would add another to put the Habs two games down. Saku Koivu would tally a goal and break up Khabibulins shutout streak but the Russian goaltender stopped 26 total shots in the 3-1 victory.
Game 3 would finally see the Canadiens come alive as Khabibulin would give up three goals for the first time in five games. Despite the goals from Patrice Brisebois, Alex Kovalev, and Michael Ryder, the Habs would still be out gunned by the top seeded Lightning. Brad Richards tallied 2 goals, Lecavalier would add another goal, and Cory Stillman also chipped in a goal to sink the Canadiens in game 3. Jose Theodore would post another horrid save percentage of just .857,, while Khabibulin posted a playoff low .903 SV% in the win.
Facing elimination, the Habs were desperate to keep their offense rolling after game 3 but once again Khabibulin would be a staunch challenge in nets. Niklas Sundstrom would tally the only Habs goal of the game as Khabibulin turned away the other 27 shots for a .964 SV% in a major rebound from his weak performance in game 3. Jose Theodore would not be as lucky, as Dan Boyle, Fredrik Modin, and Brad Richards all tallied goals to complete the 4 game sweep of Montreal, helping the Lightning advance to the conference final en route to the Stanley Cup.
The biggest difference between the two sides in the 2004 playoffs was the goaltending of Jose Theodore and Nikolai Khabibulin. Khabibulin posted only one SV% lower than .963 and he still managed to get the win despite allowing 3 goals. Theodore was not as lucky (or good), and had only one game with a SV% over .900 and was even pulled in the opening game of the series. If the regular season was any indication this years playoff series may once again come down to who plays better: Ben Bishop (If he's healthy enough to play), or Carey Price. Another major factor was the offensive presence of Vincent Lecavalier who had at least one point in every game of the series. A comparable this time around is Steven Stamkos who despite missing much of the season still tallied 25 goals and is nearly unstoppable when he heats up.
A lot has changed and the Canadiens are a much better team this time around, if Michel Therrien plays the best possible line ups and Carey Price plays like Carey Price then it's likely we'll be talking about who the Habs play in round two. But those aren't guarantees.
All images used in this article are courtesy of Getty Images.