As detailed last week, the Lightning survived a hard-fought seven-game series against Detroit. The Bolts had entered that series with expectations of a better showing than in the 2014 playoffs, when they lost four straight to Montreal in the first round. With their series win over the Red Wings, they ensured that, no matter what happened for the rest of the postseason, they would have improved upon their 2014 performance. Naturally, they weren't satisfied with winning just one round, but entering the second round, they found themselves in a much different "expectation" scenario than they were in the Detroit series. The 2015 Canadiens, on the other hand, were expected to advance deep into the postseason. In 2013, the Canadiens qualified for the playoffs and lost in the first round. The next season, they took a big step forward. After dispatching the Lightning in the first round, they upset the Boston Bruins, who had won the President's Trophy. Despite having home ice in the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers, the Habs lost that series in six games. Still, the strong 2014 playoff run left the Canadiens feeling that 2015 would be their year.
Up until the second round, 2014-15 had been a great season for the Canadiens. They finished first in the Atlantic Division (although they lost all five regular season games to the Lightning). In their opening series against Ottawa, the Habs won the first three games and, after losing Games Four and Five, they eventually finished off the Sens in Game Six. So heading into the second round, the Canadiens knew that, compared to the Lightning-Detroit matchup, they had endured a less grueling first round series.
Then there was the quick turnaround for Tampa Bay. Game One was scheduled for May 1. The Habs had wrapped up their series against Ottawa on April 26, so they had four days to prepare for the next series. The Lightning's Game Seven win over Detroit came on April 29. Meaning that they had less than 48 hours to recover from the previous series, both physically and emotionally.
Given those circumstances, it's not surprising that Game One was one of Montreal's stronger overall contests in the series. Through 60 minutes of regulation, the Habs owned most of the puck possession, shots, and scoring chances. But Ben Bishop neutralized those Montreal advantages. In what was a wonderful postseason individually for Bishop, this particular stretch was especially impressive. Prior to Max Pacioretty's tally with 5:13 left in the third period, Bishop hadn't allowed a goal since the opening minutes of the third period in Game Six against Detroit. That's a span of over six periods. The shutout streak included, of course, his magnificent 31-save performance in Game Seven versus the Red Wings. In Game One against Montreal, Bishop repeatedly foiled the Canadiens and prevented them from grabbing a lead during the first two periods. When Tyler Johnson slid a puck past Carey Price at 2:34 of the third, the Lightning took the lead. Pacioretty's late tally tied things up and set the stage for overtime.
So, on the one hand, the Canadiens applied a lot of pressure for much of Game One and, if not for Bishop, might have gotten rewarded more than they did. But it's not as if Game One was completely lopsided. The Lightning recorded 35 shots on goal themselves and forced Price to make a handful of tough saves, too. And in overtime, the Lightning actually put two pucks in the Montreal net. Nikita Kucherov appeared to have won the game during the first overtime when he converted on a breakaway. But after a video review, officials determined that Kucherov pushed Price's pad (and the puck) into the net. Undeterred, Kucherov eventually scored again, finishing a centering feed from Valtteri Filppula in double overtime. That goal prompted Phil Esposito to exclaim on our radio broadcast, "He did it anyway!!"
The emotional Game One finish had an effect on how the rest of the series unfolded. Despite their strong play in Game One, the Canadiens were down in the series. It was a frustrating result. Their frustration was on display in Game Two, as the Habs got into penalty trouble. The Lightning made them pay for it by scoring four power play goals. One of the biggest was the first of those. Unlike in Game One, the Habs were able to score early on Bishop, so they took their first lead in the series. But with less than 30 seconds remaining in the opening period, the Lightning tied things with a Filppula power play goal. From there, things unraveled for the Canadiens. Early in the second, they squandered back-to-back power play chances of their own. Less than two minutes after the second of those penalties ended, Steven Stamkos gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead. Then, late in the frame, they popped in two more power play goals to extend their advantage. Kucherov netted a four-on-three power play goal to make it 3-1 and then Victor Hedman's power play tally came with just 14 seconds left in the frame. Through 40 minutes, the Lightning had gone 3-5 on the power play, scored goals in the final minute of both the first two periods (gut-punch goals to allow), had a 4-1 lead, and were on their way to putting Montreal in a 2-0 series hole. By the time Game Two ended, the score was 6-2 and the Habs had amassed 53 penalty minutes.
Game Three is remembered for Johnson's game-winning buzzer-beater goal. But from the Lightning's perspective, much of what preceded it was less memorable. Alex Killorn wristed a shot past Price at 12:00 of the first to open the scoring, but the Lightning applied very little pressure after that. Instead, they leaned on Bishop to preserve the one-goal lead. Following Killorn's tally, Montreal dictated action for the rest of the first, all of the second, and the first half of the third. Eventually, Brendan Gallagher tied the game at 10:03 of the final stanza. The closing minutes were evenly-played and the teams were on the verge of another overtime game. But with only seconds remaining and the Lightning in possession of the puck in the Montreal end, Hedman received a pass from Ondrej Palat and took the puck towards the left corner. He centered for Johnson, who had established position at the top of the crease. Johnson redirected the puck past Price with just over a second remaining. Shockingly, the Lightning had won it. They were up 3-0 in the series.
Give Montreal credit. Game Four was to be played the next night. The Habs bounced back from the disheartening end to Game Three. They scored a couple of early goals to get the lead and extended it to 5-0 before the halfway point of the second period. The blowout win for the Habs meant that there would be a Game Five back in Montreal.
Through four games, it had been an unusual series. The Canadiens had controlled play for the majority of the time. But the Lightning, thanks to Bishop's goaltending, big goals at crucial moments, and their Game Two power play proficiency, had a three games to one lead.
Montreal won Game Five, 2-1. Stamkos tied it with a third period goal at 9:27 before P.A. Parenteau netted the winner with 4:17 left. But even with the tough result, the Lightning delivered their most complete five-on-five game in the series to that point.
There were two days off between Games Five and Six. That gave Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban plenty of time to talk about how hard it was to close out a series, especially after winning the first three games. Of course, Montreal had just been through that scenario in the first round against Ottawa.
Naturally, the Lightning didn't want to have to return to Montreal for a potential Game Seven. Subban's comments may have been intended to put more pressure on the Lightning. But in retrospect, what was more significant than a 3-0 series becoming a 3-2 one was how the ice had started to tilt towards the Lightning in Game Five. That trend continued in Game Six, which was, by far, the Lightning's best game in the series. They held Montreal to a series-low 19 shots. Kucherov scored late in the first. Stamkos got his third of the series early in the second. Palat added another late in the frame, a power play goal that put the Lightning up, 3-0. A Pacioretty goal with under five minutes left got Montreal on the board, but Kucherov sealed the series with an empty-netter at 17:59.
There had been another memorable Subban comment from the series. Following Montreal's Game Four blowout win in which Bishop was chased, Subban stated that Bishop had been "sitting on a horseshoe for a little bit there. He's played well, but he's been lucky as well." After the series-clinching victory, Bishop credited his horseshoe for the win: "Thank goodness for my lucky horseshoe."
Bishop, of course, was a big reason for the Lightning's series victory. So was the Lightning power play, which proved to be the difference in the Game Two victory that put Montreal into a deep hole. For the series, the Lightning scored seven power play goals - the seventh one was the Palat tally in Game Six that may have been the final dagger for Montreal. Kucherov was a difference-maker throughout the series, scoring the OT winner in Game One and finishing with six goals over the six games. With the exception of Game Five, the Lightning were the ones coming up with an important goal at a critical moment. And finally, the trajectory of the series mattered a lot. In building a 3-0 series lead, the Lightning forced Montreal to repeatedly stave off elimination. By Game Six, the Habs had run out of gas.
Most Impressive Win: Game Six
Most Dramatic Win: Game Three
Best Goaltending Performance: Game One
Special Teams Win: Game Two