The Lightning and Canadiens open their best-of-seven first-round Eastern Conference playoff series tonight at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. It's a good bet that the games will be close, considering three of the teams' four regular-season meetings this season went past regulation and two were decided by shootouts. Tampa Bay won the series 3-0-1. Who has the edge in the playoffs?
Carey Price, Canadiens
Price, 26, is among the top goalies in the world and is coming off a regular season in which he set career bests in save percentage (.927) and goals-against average (2.32). Price also led Canada to a gold medal in February's Olympics, stopping 100 of 103 shots. "You're probably looking at the premier goalie in the league," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. Price, though, hasn't won a playoff series since his rookie year (2007) and is 9-17 with a 2.90 GAA in 30 postseason games overall. "We're going against one of the best in the world in Carey," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "We have to do the same things that you try to do on every goalie but it's even more: make sure he doesn't see pucks, a lot of traffic in front. He's had an unbelievable year, and we have to expect that he's going to be great for them. That's going to be a big challenge for us."
Anders Lindback, Lightning
When the Lightning lost its MVP, goalie Ben Bishop, to an elbow injury last week, it was easy for some to write Tampa Bay off. Bishop, after all, had put himself in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy (top goalie), and backup Anders Lindback, 25, had been inconsistent at best. But Lindback has seized the moment, picking up three straight wins (0.67 goals-against average, .975 save percentage, a shutout). Lindback has just 13 minutes of playoff experience (in 2011 with the Predators) but has been playing more calmly and confidently. Having a good goalie is great, but a hot goalie is more dangerous.
The Lightning has the best forward in this series, star center Steven Stamkos. The Canadiens got a big boost when wing Thomas Vanek was acquired from the Islanders at the trade deadline; he forms a potent line with center David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty. Captain Brian Gionta is a stout two-way player. Montreal did lose second-line forward Alex Galchenyuk for the first round due to a lower body injury. The Lightning, built on speed, is younger but deeper, with four 20-goal scorers (Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, rookies Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat). Veteran Ryan Callahan, brought in from the Rangers in the Marty St. Louis trade, is built for playoff hockey.
The Canadiens' P.K. Subban is the defending Norris Trophy (best defenseman) winner, a big presence at both ends of the ice. Veteran Andrei Markov anchors the top group, and Mike Weaver, acquired at the trade deadline, has solidified the third pairing. The Lightning has a good mix, too, with veterans including Eric Brewer and Sami Salo mixed in with younger players such as Victor Hedman, who may have reached elite status this season. The emergence of rookie Radko Gudas and the presence of Matt Carle have allowed Brewer and Salo to play fewer minutes, making them more effective.
The Canadiens' Michel Therrien, 50, in his second stint with Montreal, has coached almost 600 NHL games. He led the Penguins for four seasons, a stretch that included a trip to the 2008 Stanley Cup final. The Lightning's Jon Cooper, 46, has done a remarkable job in his first full NHL season, putting him in coach-of-the-year consideration. Through injuries to Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop, and the trade of Marty St. Louis, Cooper has kept the team together and playing well at the right times.
The Canadiens won seven of their final 10 games (7-2-1). They're a skilled, veteran group, in the playoffs for the second straight season. Though eight of the Lightning's key players are 23 or younger, many were in playoff runs with coach Jon Cooper in the AHL. Plus, Tampa Bay got mentally tougher overcoming the absence of Steven Stamkos after he broke a leg in November and the trade of Marty St. Louis; that has given the Lightning a "Why not us?" approach. And Tampa Bay, which has home-ice advantage, was 25-10-6 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.