MONTREAL – Against the Lightning in Game One, the Canadiens appear well equipped to run-and-gun against Tampa’s high-flying offense.
For the Montreal Canadiens, one of the focal points of the upcoming series against the Lightning will be how to best contain Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. The former Rocket Richard Trophy winner had an NHL-best 0.68 goal per game this season, only missing out on the goal-scoring title for the third time due to losing half the season to a severe leg injury. Now back in full flight for the Floridians, the Markham, Ontario native figures to be one of the main thorns on the Habs’ side in the next two weeks. To counter Stamkos’ presence, the Canadiens’ coaching staff is set to go with a multi-pronged approach: the insertion of a notoriously tough customer on one line, and two other line combinations which can attack from anywhere on the ice.
A do-it-all player for the Habs since arriving in Montreal two off-seasons ago, Brandon Prust is getting set to make his return from the upper-body injury which sidelined him for the final month of the regular season. If he is indeed ready to go for Game One on Wednesday, he could play alongside two-way pivot Tomas Plekanec and feisty Brendan Gallagher to form a trio which would give little room to manoeuvre for even the best players in the world.
“Getting Prust back into the lineup is going to be big for us. He’s a guy who shows up and plays for his teammates every night. We’ve played well together in the past and it’s a lot of fun playing with him. Hopefully we can have success together and help the team,” offered Gallagher, who meshed well with Prust en route to co-leading the Canadiens in goals in the shortened 2012-13 season, his first in the NHL. “As a team, we need to do a good job playing defensively. Stamkos is a really good player. He will get his chances and create things and it’s up to us to make it tough for him.”
For his part, Michel Therrien is keeping his cards close to his chest.
“We’re not sure yet whether [Prust] will play. We’ll see tomorrow,” said the Habs’ coach. Rest assured that both number eight and his coach will make every effort to be on the same bench in Tampa on Wednesday night.
As for Carey Price, he, too, is ready for the challenge of shutting down one of the world’s best goal scorers.
“The preparation is the same as for any other game. The key is to not get too worked up and just have the same attitude,” opined Price, who holds a 95.6% save percentage against Tampa this season and 93.1% overall since returning from a gold-medal performance in Sochi. “Stamkos is a great player, but it doesn’t matter off whose stick the puck is coming. You just have to stop it. It’s no different than with anyone else.”
With home-ice advantage comes the benefit of having the last line change before a faceoff. If Lightning coach Jon Cooper manages to avoid the Plekanec matchup with his scoring line, then the visiting team will have two other alternatives to fall back on. For every goal that Steven Stamkos and company may notch, the Canadiens’ third and forth lines will have the ability to come right back and even the score.
Having overcome an illness which had kept him out of the final two regular season games, Lars Eller appeared to be back at one hundred percent at practice Tuesday. Shooting the puck with power and accuracy while working with Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque, the Dane can be expected to use his size and reach advantage to cause problems for the Lightning. Playing behind them are Michael Bournival, Daniel Briere and Dale Weise. While there is a sizable disprepancy in physical stature between Briere and his linemates, all three players are able to use their above-average skating skills to create chances and exploit the opposing teams’ depth players. In helping his coach play a four-line game, Weise’s impact has been almost just as large as that of the Habs’ other two recent acquisitions. Though Thomas Vanek and Mike Weaver play more minutes than the Winnipeg-born winger, his presence gives his team some extra flexibility in how to deploy its players.
“The three players we acquired this spring have very specific roles within our team. We all know what Vanek can do. Weaver has been a very reliable defenseman. He kills penalties, does good things defensively and he’s a leader, too. In the case of Weise, he is a guy with size and speed who can occasionally play a top-nine role. All three of these players are very important to the team,” acknowledged Michel Therrien. “We need contribution from everyone. Not just from one line. Every player in the lineup is going to have an important role. That’s how I see it.”
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.