2014 NHL PLAYOFFS: LIGHTNING VS. CANADIENS

Thomas Vanek Habs 2014 playoff preview

With 11 wins in their final 15 games, Tomas Vanek and the Canadiens look to upset the Lightning.

by Christopher Wenrich

At first glance, many would think that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 46-27-9 regular season record, the presence of their now-healthy superstar Steven Stamkos, and the play of goalie Ben Bishop would make them a heavy favorite over the Montreal Canadiens.  Bishop, in particular, was outstanding.  He posted a 37-14-7  record  with a 2.23 goals against average (GAA), a .924 save percentage (SV%) and five shutouts.  As pretty as these statistics may look to the casual observer, they don’t tell the whole story.  The following stats and league ranking are a truer indicator of the Lightning’s season and their playoff hopes.

Tampa Bay
232 goals for (9th)
209 goals against (11th)
18.5 PP% (13th)
80.7 PK% (23rd)

The team ranked ninth in the National Hockey League in goals this season, despite the leg injury which limited Stamkos to 37 games.  When healthy, Stamkos was a goal-scoring machine.  He scored 25 goals and added 15 assists for 40 points in 37 games.  Youngsters Ondrej Palat(59 points in 81 games) and Tyler Johnson (50 points in 82 games) were productive for the Lightning, as well.  Veteran forward Valtteri Filppula added 58 points in 75 games.  The offense took a big hit, however, when their leading scorer was dealt at the trade deadline.

Martin St. Louis topped the Lightning score sheet with 29 goals and 61 points in 62 games before being traded on March 5 to the New York Rangers in exchange for Ryan Callahan.  Although Callahan is an excellent all-around player who can contribute to the Lightning’s penalty kill (PK), the absence of St. Louis may potentially hinder the offense of the team and the effectiveness of Stamkos.  There is no question that Stamkos is a bona fide  superstar, but the loss of St. Louis puts more pressure on him to fill the net with vulcanized rubber.

Questions about the offense aside, trading for Callahan made sense for the Lightning, as their PK ranked 23rd in the NHL this season.  It’s an alarming statistic, particularly when you consider how fantastic Bishop has been in goal.  The goalie’s numbers may be misleading though, as his play declined sharply after the Olympics.  Prior to the international games, Bishop was 28-8-4 with a 1.98 GAA, a .933 SV% and four shutouts.  After the break, Bishop went 9-6-3 with a 2.79 GAA, a .904 SV% and one shutout.  While a goalie can never be solely blamed for a decline in performance, the drastic changes in the numbers are still startling.

At the moment, the bigger question about Bishop is his health.  He is already scratched from Game 1 due to the upper-body injury he suffered last week.  Backup goalie Anders Lindbackgets the start in his place.  Lindback heated up at the right time, with a 3-0-0 record, 0.67 GAA, .975 SV% and a shutout in his three games in the month of April.  The Lightning will need Lindback to carry that momentum into the playoffs.

Montreal Canadiens
209 goals for (21st)
201 goals against (8th)
17.2 PP% (19th)
85.1 PK% (4th)

Having ranked 21st in the NHL in goals, the Canadiens will not be mistaken for an offensive juggernauts.  However, their trade deadline acquisition of forward Thomas Vanek may have been the move of the year.  The Canadiens lost their first three games after they acquired Vanek, but finished the season 11-3-1.  Vanek was a big contributor to the Habs’ hot streak with 14 points in the last 15 games.

A player of Vanek’s caliber was sorely needed in the lineup, as the closest thing the Canadiens had to an all-star forward was the one-dimensional Max Pacioretty.  The 25-year old scored 39 goals and notched 21 assists for 60 points in 73 games.

Vanek’s presence also takes the pressure off of youngsters David Desharnais and Alex Galchenyuk.  Although they are past their primes, veterans Tomas PlekanecDaniel Briereand Brian Gionta provide valuable experience which may come in handy during the playoffs.  Having a good mix of veterans reduces the pressures and expectations on younger players and allows them to find their game and grow.  If Galchenyuk shows flashes of his potential in the playoffs, the Canadiens can be a very dangerous team.

Defensemen P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov jump-start the Canadiens attack and get the puck to the finishers.  Subban was among the NHL’s highest-scoring and most reliable defensemen this season, with 53 points while playing in all 82 regular season games.  Markov recorded 43 points this season, including 36 assists.

Should the Canadiens defense be beaten, Carey Price awaits in net to stymie any attack.  While having an elite goaltender like Price does not absolve players of their defensive responsibilities, it does give them more offensive freedom to take chances, thus enabling defensemen like Subban and Markov to shine.  Price was superb this season with a 34-20-5 record, 2.32 GAA, .927 SV% (3rd in NHL) and six shutouts (2nd in NHL).  He also was the goalie for the Gold Medal winning Canadian hockey team in this year’s winter Olympics.

The Lightning/Canadiens series is indeed an interesting match of misleading statistics.  The Lightning’s offense and goaltending might not be as good as the regular season numbers indicate.  Likewise, the Canadiens’ offense might not be as bad as the regular season numbers indicate.  Do not be surprised if you see the Canadiens eliminate the Lightning in this opening round series.  They have a proven goaltender, a good defense and an underrated offense that continues to improve.  If Galchenyuk takes his game to another level in the playoffs while the others continue to contribute, the Canadiens could conceivably make a deep run and win the Stanley Cup.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment.  Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).

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