(SportsNetwork.com) - After a two-season absence the Tampa Bay Lightning are back in the playoffs.
It did not look good for the Bolts back in November when star centerman Steven Stamkos went down with a broken leg. However, Tampa did more than survive without one of the league's best snipers as it rode a strong campaign from goaltender Ben Bishop until Stamkos was ready to return in early March.
Now that they're back in the second season, the Lightning hope to go on a run similar to the one from 2011 when Tampa Bay came one victory away from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. The Lightning lost Game 7 in Boston 1-0 that year to fall short of returning to the Cup Finals for the first time since winning it all in 2004.
The opening round marks the 12th postseason series for the Tampa franchise, but it will be only the second one without Martin St. Louis, who appeared in every playoff game for the franchise from 2003-11. The veteran winger was sent to the New York Rangers at the 2013-14 trade deadline in exchange for fellow forward Ryan Callahan, in a rare trade that featured two team captains getting swapped for one another.
Callahan had a solid 20-game run with Tampa Bay following the trade, posting six goals and five assists. However, the former Rangers captain has big shoes to fill in the playoffs. Callahan has 24 points (14 goals, 10 assists) over 59 career playoff games, while St. Louis amassed 68 points (33g, 35a) in 63 postseason games with Tampa.
Of course, Stamkos is still the key to Tampa Bay's offensive game plan. At only 24 years of age, the dangerous sniper has scored 45 goals or more three times in his young career and managed to notch 25 markers while playing in only 37 games in 2013-14.
This will mark only the second playoff run for Stamkos, who had six goals and 13 points in 18 games for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Stamkos is one of four Lightning players with 20 or more goals this season and that doesn't include St. Louis, who had 29 goals before being shipped to New York.
Valtteri Filppula matched Stamkos for the team lead with 25 goals, while rookies Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat had 24 and 23 markers, respectively.
Tampa finished ninth in the league with 2.83 goals per game this season. The club's power-play unit ranked 13th with an 18.5-percent success rate.
Scoring shouldn't be an issue for the Lightning, but with Bishop battling an upper-body injury, stopping the opposition from putting the puck in the net could be a problem. Bishop left a game against Toronto on April 8 and missed the final three games of the regular season. His status for the start of this series is uncertain.
Acquired from Ottawa at the 2013 trade deadline, Bishop turned in a Vezina- caliber season in his first full campaign with the Bolts. He went 37-14-7 with five shutouts, a 2.23 goals against average and .924 save percentage this season. If he can suit up at some point in this series it will be the first- ever playoff appearance for the 27-year-old.
If Bishop misses time, Anders Lindback will fill in as the No. 1 option in net. Although the 25-year-old Swede was just 8-12-2 with a 2.90 GAA and .891 save percentage this season, his play since Bishop went down to injury earlier this month should inspire more confidence. Lindback was named the NHL's First Star for the final week of the regular season after posting a record of 3-0-0 with a goals-against average of 0.67 and a .975 save percentage.
Lindback's lone playoff appearance came in relief for Nashville during the 2011 postseason.
After finishing 26th in the league with 3.06 goals allowed per game in the lockout-shortened season of 2013, Tampa Bay's defense improved dramatically this season.
The Lightning were 11th in 2013-14 with just an average of 2.55 goals allowed per game. Bishop played a big role in that improvement, but so did young defenseman Victor Hedman, who grew into the role of the club's No. 1 blueliner this season.
At only 23 years of age, Hedman, the second overall pick behind New York Islanders star John Tavares in the 2009 draft, is already a veteran of 333 regular-season NHL games. The 2013-14 campaign was easily his finest, as the Swede notched 13 goals and 42 assists while leading Tampa Bay in ice time (22:26) over 75 games. His 55 points were more than he had produced in the previous two seasons combined.
In addition to being gifted with the puck, the 6-foot-6, 233-pound Hedman also brings physicality to the table. Hedman's combination of size and skill conjures up images of a young Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger, but he needs to get it done in the playoffs to justify those comparisons.
Veterans Eric Brewer, Sami Salo and Matthew Carle also provide Lightning head coach Jon Cooper with considerable puck-moving skill at the back end.
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 46-28-8 (3rd place, Atlantic)
2013 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Ottawa 4-1 in conference quarterfinals
After missing the postseason in 2012, the Canadiens are back for their second straight playoff run. Of course, the Habs hope they have more staying power this time around.
Despite entering the 2013 postseason as the second seed in the East, Montreal was eliminated by Ottawa in five games. That marked the third straight playoff series loss for the Habs, who bowed out to Philadelphia in the 2010 conference finals before losing in the first round to Boston the following spring.
Considering Montreal's offense finished 21st in the NHL with just 2.55 gpg, it's pretty clear the team's strengths rely in goaltender Carey Price and a solid defensive unit led by 2013 Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban.
Price, who anchored Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, had one of his finest NHL campaigns in 2013-14. The 26-year-old went 34-20-5 over 59 games and set career bests in both GAA (2.32) and save percentage (.927).
The playoffs have been a struggle for Price, however, as he owns a 2.90 GAA and .905 save percentage over 30 career postseason appearances with the Habs.
Subban did not reach the heights of his Norris-winning campaign in 2013-14, but he still led Montreal's defense in goals (10), assists (43), shots (204), penalty minutes (81) and games played (82). The 24-year-old is usually paired with stay-at-home blueliner Josh Gorges, who had a goal and 13 assists in 66 games this season.
In addition to Subban, Montreal also boasts another supremely talented offensive defenseman in veteran Andrei Markov. The 35-year-old Russian had seven goals, 36 assists and a team-best plus-12 rating in 81 games this season.
Markov skates primarily with countryman Alexei Emelin, who provides a formidable physical presence at the back end. Head coach Michel Therrien's options thin out after the top two pairings, however, with Mike Weaver standing out as the best of the rest. Weaver could be paired with either Douglas Murray, Francis Bouillon or Jarred Tinordi.
While the defense held the opposition to just 2.45 goals per game in 2013-14, putting the puck in the net does pose a problem for Montreal.
Max Pacioretty was clearly the best offensive weapon for Montreal, pumping in a career-best 39 goals in 73 games to go with his team-leading 60 points. Still, the 25-year-old American has never scored in the postseason, failing to register a single point over four career playoff games.
Habs general manager Marc Bergevin realized his team's lack of offense at the trade deadline and brought in sniper Thomas Vanek to try and help boost the club's scoring. Vanek, who started the season in Buffalo before getting dealt to the New York Islanders and eventually Montreal, recorded 15 points (6g, 9a) in 18 games with Montreal down the stretch. Overall, he had 27 goals and 68 points in 78 combined games with Buffalo, New York and the Canadiens.
Vanek has 15 goals and five assists over 36 career playoff games, all of which came during his time in Buffalo. The 30-year-old Austrian last participated in a playoff run in 2011 when he had five goals in a seven-game series loss against Philadelphia.
Pacioretty and Vanek normally play the left and right wing, respectively, on a top line that also features centerman David Desharnais, who had 52 points this season on 16 goals and 36 assists.
Tomas Plekanec was second to Pacioretty on the team with 20 goals and is a valuable all-around player for Therrien, particularly on the penalty kill. As a whole, Montreal ranked fourth in the league on the PK, killing off 85.1 percent of its penalties.
Montreal has some injury concerns up front heading into Round 1, as fourth- line forwards Travis Moen (concussion) and Brandon Prust (upper body) are questionable for the start of the series. Meanwhile, Alex Galchenyuk, who had 13 goals and 31 points in 65 games, will miss the entire opening round due to a lower-body injury.
This series marks only the second playoff meeting between these franchises. The Lightning made quick work of the Canadiens back in the 2004 conference quarterfinals, sweeping Montreal in four games while outscoring the Habs 14-5.
In contrast, the 2013-14 regular-season series was extremely close with the clubs splitting four meetings, three of which were decided after regulation. The largest margin of victory came in the most recent encounter when Tampa Bay recorded a 3-1 home win on April 1.
Vanek failed to score in his one game versus the Lightning since the trade to Montreal, but he had two goals and two assists in five total tilts versus Tampa Bay this season. Hedman led Tampa Bay with four points -- all assists -- in four games against the Habs.
Bishop started all four games against Montreal and was 3-0-1 with a 0.94 GAA in the season series. Lindback has faced the Canadiens once in his career, taking the overtime loss for Tampa on Feb. 12, 2013.
Price was 1-1-2 with an excellent 1.41 GAA in four games against the Bolts in 2013-14.
This figures to be a low-scoring series and it could come down to the goalies. Price has the edge in playoff experience, but that doesn't mean he'll get the better of Bishop or Lindback in the opening round.
Judging by the regular season meetings, we could see a few OT games from this matchup. In the end, the Lightning and its superior offense should be able to move past Montreal.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Lightning in 7