Sports

Canadiens host Bolts in Game 1 of East semis

(SportsNetwork.com) - The Tampa Bay Lightning did not fare well the last time it met the Montreal Canadiens on the playoff stage. They're hoping to make up for that poor performance in the rematch.

After sweeping the Lightning in the opening round last spring, the Canadiens host Game 1 of this Eastern Conference semifinal in Friday's clash at the Bell Centre.

Last season's four-game loss to Montreal has haunted the Lightning for a full calendar year, but now they'll finally get a chance to properly avenge that playoff defeat. Although they finished second to Montreal in the Atlantic standings, the Lightning obliterated the Habs in the 2014-15 season series, taking all five meetings while outscoring the Canadiens by a combined 21-8 margin.

Of course, that regular season dominance will mean very little if Tampa can't wash away the taste of last spring's playoff loss with a win in this rematch.

"I don't think we think about the regular season," said Montreal forward Dale Weise. "You put it in the past. Playoffs are a completely different story."

The Lightning are coming off a difficult seven-game battle against the Detroit Red Wings and head coach Jon Cooper's team will only get one day of rest in between Game 7 of the first round and the opener of the conference semifinals. Montreal, meanwhile, will have had four full days of rest before hosting tonight's opener. The clubs will meet Sunday at the Bell Centre for Game 2.

Tampa is counting on Ben Bishop to make a big difference in this season's postseason encounter. The club's No. 1 goaltender missed the entire playoff series against the Habs last spring, but the lanky netminder is healthy this time around.

Bishop made his postseason debut in the opening round against Detroit and after a shaky start wound up posting a solid 1.87 GAA and .922 save percentage for the series. His best performance was his most recent one, as he turned in a 31-save shutout to carry the Bolts to Wednesday's 2-0 win in the decisive Game 7 victory over the visiting Red Wings.

While Bishop enters the second round on a high note, the Lightning offense is struggling coming into the conference semifinals. Outside of second-line centerman Tyler Johnson, who almost single-handedly carried the scoring load against Detroit, the forwards have a lot to prove against Montreal.

Johnson tied a franchise record for most goals in a single playoff series, hitting the net six times. Ruslan Fedotenko also had six goals for Tampa against Philadelphia in the 2004 Eastern Conference finals during the club's run to its only Stanley Cup title.

Alex Killorn was the only Tampa player besides Johnson to score more than one goal against Detroit. Killorn notched two goals and two assists.

While the speedy Johnson turned it up a notch in the opening round, captain and star centerman Steven Stamkos failed to score a single goal in the seven- game series. Stamkos was second in the NHL with 43 goals during the regular season, but has now gone 10 straight postseason games without a marker. The last time he scored in the playoffs was when he tallied twice in Game 1 of last season's series against Montreal.

Stamkos did post three assists in the conference quarters, but Tampa is counting on him to be a consistent goal-scorer against the Canadiens.

Tampa led the NHL with 3.16 goals per game during the regular season, but saw that number dip to 2.43 GPG in the playoff matchup against the Red Wings.

One way Tampa can get back to being an offensively dominant team is by doing a better job on the power play. The Bolts clicked at 18.8 percent with the man advantage during the regular season, but only scored twice on 30 chances (6.7 percent) in the opening round against Detroit. The Lightning have an opportunity to vastly improve those numbers against Montreal's struggling PK unit.

Tampa did receive one goal from five different defensemen in the series with Detroit. The two biggest scores from blueliners came in Game 7, as Braydon Coburn broke a scoreless tie early in the third period and Anton Stralman later sealed the all-important victory with an empty-netter.

Stralman usually forms Tampa's top pairing along with fellow Swede Victor Hedman, who recorded three assists and a plus-six rating in the opening round.

Cooper opted to dress seven defensemen in Games 4, 6 and 7 against the Red Wings and all three ended in victories for Tampa. He could employ the same strategy at the start of this series.

"I think it gives you a different look, gives you different options," said Cooper. "I like having the extra defenseman there. I could go down the list of reasons why. It's not just one. It's a bevy of things."

Montreal's 2015 playoff run began smoothly before hitting some road bumps. The Habs jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the opening round against Ottawa before allowing the Senators back in the series. Ottawa was able to push the set to six games, becoming only the third team to trail 3-0 to the Canadiens and force a Game 6.

Outside of a 5-1 win by the Senators in Game 5, the series was evenly played. That includes the first three contests which were each decided by one goal and featured overtime victories by the Canadiens in both Games 2 and 3.

Montreal's Round 1 performance offered few surprises. The Atlantic Division champions were tough to score against, but also failed to generate much offense of their own. They averaged 2.0 goals per game on both offense and defense against the Sens.

The Habs had the stingiest defense in the league during the regular season with 2.24 goals allowed per game, but the club ranked 20th in offense (2.61 GPG).

Carey Price is the biggest reason Montreal can be successful despite its low- scoring offense. The Hart and Vezina Trophy finalist posted a 1.94 goals against average and .939 save percentage in the opening round. Price also recorded a shutout in Game 6 to close out the Senators.

Montreal's leading point producer in the opening round was defenseman P.K. Subban. The Norris Trophy finalist picked up four points on one goal and three assists. Subban led the Habs blue line with 25 minutes, 8 seconds of ice time on average in the opening round, just a shade ahead of skating partner Andrei Markov (25:03). Markov had just one assist in six games during the opening round.

Alexei Emelin and Jeff Petry will likely make up the second pairing with Tom Gilbert and either Nathan Beaulieu or Greg Pateryn rounding out the defensive rotation. Pateryn was inserted into the lineup and played the final three games of the opening-round series when Beaulieu was knocked out of Game 3 with an upper-body injury. Beaulieu is expected to miss at least the first four games of Round 2.

Max Pacioretty is the top forward for Montreal. He missed the opening game against the Sens due to injury, but was in the lineup for the last five contests and contributed two goals to the series win. Pacioretty led the Habs with 37 goals, 67 points and a plus-38 rating during the regular season.

Weise, a third-line winger, tied Pacioretty for the team lead in the opening round with two goals.

Top-line centerman Tomas Plekanec tied for the club lead among forwards with three points (1G, 2A). Fourth-liners Brian Flynn and Torrey Mitchell each added a goal and two assists against Ottawa.

Montreal needs to do a much better job in the special teams department in the second round. The Canadiens scored once on 20 chances with the man advantage against the Senators. The club struggled on the power play during the regular season, finishing 23rd in the league rankings.

The Canadiens also allowed Ottawa to pot five power-play goals on 20 chances.

Sometimes it can be a mistake to read too much from a regular-season series when predicting a playoff matchup, but it's difficult to ignore what Tampa was able to do against the Canadiens in 2014-15.

Although Price has an excellent chance to be the first goalie to win the Hart Trophy since Montreal's Jose Theodore in 2001-02, it certainly won't be due to his performances against Tampa. Price was 0-4-1 with a 3.47 GAA and .906 save percentage in the season series. Bishop, on the other hand, was a perfect 5-0 with a 1.59 GAA and .933 save percentage versus the Habs.

Stamkos should be eager to put his rough series against Detroit behind him and this matchup against Montreal could offer the perfect opportunity to do so. He scored five goals and added two assists in the season series and was just one of several Tampa players to light it up versus the Habs in 2014-15.

Hedman had two goals and four assists, tying forward Vladislav Namestnikov, who also had six points against the Canadiens with three goals and three helpers. Kucherov and Ondrej Palat also had five points apiece in the season series.

Plekanec, meanwhile, led Montreal with three points (1G, 2A) against Tampa while Pacioretty added two goals and Subban chipped in a goal and an assist.

This series marks the third all-time playoff meeting between Montreal and Tampa and both previous encounters ended in sweeps. The Bolts breezed past the Canadiens in the conference semifinals in 2004 before the clubs met for a second time last spring.