TAMPA – The Canadiens held an optional skate on Wednesday morning, with both goalies taking part and only Francis Bouillon, Max Pacioretty, Thomas Vanek and David Desharnais opting out.
Michel Therrien refused to give details on the lines he’s planning to ice against the Lightning to kick off the first round, but he confirmed that Brandon Prust would be back in the lineup after missing the final 12 games of the season with an upper body injury.
“He’s had two good practices with our team. He’s excited and we’re all excited about him being back in the lineup,” explained Therrien, who has been without the services of the 30-year-old forward since March 18. “He’s a leader, he’s a tough guy to play against, he’s got speed, and most importantly, he’s a gamer.”
Facing a squad with 12 players who have yet to take part in an NHL Playoff game, the Canadiens will have the edge in the experience department against Tampa. With 28 postseason games under his belt, Prust has learned his share of playoff lessons over the years, but he also knows that once the puck drops on Wednesday night, there won’t be any playoff virgins left on either side and every player on the ice will be privy to those same lessons.
“We have a lot of guys who have played in the playoffs, but you can’t underestimate young kids coming in like they have nothing to lose. They’re going to be excited to play and they’re going to be coming hard,” predicted Prust, who counts four points and 49 penalty minutes among his postseason totals. “With experience, you learn what it takes to win and you realize how hard it is and how much work it takes. It’s not easy. There are no shifts off and there are no nights off. You have to be ready and on your game every second. It’s the fastest hockey you play all year. You have to adjust and you have to adjust quickly.”
For their part, only two Habs will be making their NHL postseason debuts on Wednesday night, Alexei Emelin and rookie Michael Bournival.
“What I like about Bournival is his speed,” explained Therrien, who will sit Ryan White in place of Bournival against the Bolts. “We’re playing against a fast team and he’s a great forechecker who can kill penalties. That’s a role he’s had for us this season. He’s going to be enjoying his playoff baptism since it’s his first playoff game in the NHL, so for sure he’ll be nervous but nerves can be a positive thing. He’s a guy who can make his mark in a game like this with his speed and his intensity.”
Tampa’s three goaltenders, Ben Bishop, Kristers Gudlevskis and Anders Lindback have played a combined one NHL playoff game in their careers, while Carey Price has seen action in the postseason 30 times in his career. While Lightning coach Jon Cooper would not reveal who his starter will be for Wednesday’s game, confirming only “not Ben Bishop”, the Canadiens won’t be changing their game plan no matter who Tampa puts between the pipes in Game 1. As expected, Price will get the start for Montreal, entering the series having posted an impeccable 1.42 goals-against average and .956 save percentage in four games against Tampa in 2013-14.
Price will play a big role in helping hold Tampa sniper Steven Stamkos off the scoresheet, but the Canadiens have shut down the NHL’s leading sharpshooters all season by employing a six-man approach to defense. Without the luxury of having last change on the road, Therrien will count on every player in his lineup to be responsible at both ends of the ice.
“First of all, we don’t have last change, and I’m not a fan of making hard changes,” shared the Habs bench boss. “I try to match as well as I can and anticipate, but my philosophy is that when guys are on the ice and it’s not the matchup we’re looking for, as a coach I’ve got to show confidence to the players that they can and will do the job for the team.”
Looking to maintain a business-as-usual approach to his first career NHL playoff series behind the bench, Cooper hasn’t changed much on the planning front ahead of Game 1, although he spent the morning skate juggling his lines to keep the Canadiens guessing on which combos will be together when the puck drops.
“If you want to see my lines, come to the game tonight,” joked the Lighting coach, who won the Calder Cup with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals in 2012. “The only difference [between the regular season and the playoffs] is we usually just have one little Web cam and now there are a few more cameras. And it’s a little hotter in this room. Other than that, we’re looking at this like Game 83 of the season we want to win.”
The much-anticipated series-opening puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. EDT in Tampa.
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