The Lightning went 5-0-0 against the Canadiens this season, outscoring them 21-8. That included victories in three games at Bell Centre, where the Lightning have won their past five regular-season visits.
But the perfect regular-season record in 2014-15 didn't do much to ease the Lightning's disappointment from last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, when Montreal swept Tampa Bay in the first round, averaging four goals per game. All four wins came with Tampa Bay starting goaltender Ben Bishop sidelined because of injury.
Bishop was in goal for each of the five wins against Montreal this season and outplayed Hart Trophy finalist Carey Price, who lost all five. The inability to beat Tampa Bay was one of the few blemishes in a brilliant season for Price, who was the major reason Montreal allowed fewer non-shootout goals than any NHL team.
While the Canadiens were winning 50 games by preventing opponents from scoring, the Lightning won 50 by leading the League with 259 non-shootout goals. Each team lost 32 times, but the Canadiens had two fewer regulation defeats, enabling them to finish with 110 points to the Lightning's 108 and earn the home-ice advantage in this series.
Each team had to work hard to get through the first round. Montreal won each of the first three games against the Ottawa Senators by one goal, lost the next two, and needed 43 saves from Price to close the series with a 2-0 victory in Game 6. The Lighting had to win Game 6 on the road before outlasting the Detroit Red Wings 2-0 in Game 7.
Before last year, the only time the Lightning and Canadiens met in the playoffs was in 2004, when Tampa Bay swept Montreal in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on the way to their only Stanley Cup.
It was a collaborative effort against the Senators which helped the Canadiens advance as the scoring production came from every line.
Centers Tomas Plekanec, Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn each finished with a goal and two assists, and left wing Max Pacioretty and right wing Dale Weise each had two goals. Flynn was the hero of Game 1 when he had a goal and two assists in a 4-3 victory in Montreal.
Montreal's four-line attack forced Ottawa coach Dave Cameron to replace goaltender Andrew Hammond with Craig Anderson after two games. Hammond, who was 20-1-2 with a 1.79 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in 24 regular-season games, allowed seven goals in two playoff games (3.44 GAA, .914 save percentage).
Plekanec and Pacioretty play a solid 200-foot game and are in the thick of the action more often than not. Pacioretty, who scored 37 goals in the regular season, rejoined the Canadiens for Game 2 after missing the previous three games with an upper-body injury sustained April 5. Plekanec averaged 20:27 of ice time in six games.
Third-year forwards Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk contributed in big spots, each finishing with a goal and two points. Lars Eller, in his sixth season with the Canadiens, led them with a 61.6 percent faceoff efficiency (45-of-73) and had a goal and two points. Center David Desharnais had two assists and won 48 of 92 faceoffs (52.2 percent).
Devante Smith-Pelly led the Canadiens with 22 hits, and role players Jacob De La Rose and Brandon Prust were strong two-way producers.
Tampa Bay led the NHL in scoring during the regular season because it has perhaps the deepest group of forwards in the League; seven scored at least 15 goals. Steven Stamkos, who had 43, was limited to three assists against Detroit, though his defensive play was solid. Tyler Johnson and his "Triplets" linemates, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, picked up the offensive slack. Johnson scored twice each in Games 2, 4 and 6; his six goals were tied for the most in the opening round (Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues).
Coach Jon Cooper did his best to roll four lines against Detroit. No forward averaged more ice time than Killorn's 19:51, but eight averaged at least 15:00. The depth up front makes it difficult for opponents to concentrate on shutting down one particular line.
The top defense pair of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov played heavy minutes against the Senators. Subban leads the Canadiens in average ice time per game (25:08) and in scoring with four points (three assists). Markov averaged 25:03 and blocked 15 shots, though he struggled in the series with numerous turnovers.
Jeff Petry, who was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, has formed a solid second pairing alongside Alexei Emelin. Petry didn't break out offensively against the Senators, but he did average 22:08, delivered 16 hits, and blocked 11 shots. Emelin averaged 20:53 and produced 19 hits.
Coach Michel Therrien had options with his third defense pair, as Tom Gilbert, Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn proved to be reliable. Pateryn, who had no points in 17 regular-season games, had two assists in three games. Beaulieu was injured in Game 3 of the series and is out at least the first four games of this one.
Tampa Bay's defense scored five goals during the first round, including the winner by Braydon Coburn in Game 7.
The usual top pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman is one of the best in the NHL. They're solid in their end, do an excellent job of driving possession, and contribute offensively; each had more than 30 points during the regular season. Jason Garrison has a big shot from the point, and Matt Carle, Coburn, Ondrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov round out a unit that can move the puck and played a big role in limiting the Red Wings to 13 non-empty-net goals in seven games.
Price was rock solid and proved why he not only is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender, but also the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. Price had a 1.94 GAA and .939 save percentage against the Senators.
He capped the series with 43 saves in a 2-0 victory in Game 6 at Ottawa on Sunday. Price, who bounced back from a 5-1 loss in Game 5, became the first goaltender to shut out the Senators this season.
"Carey was the best player in the building," Pacioretty said. "That's the story very often with our team. He was the difference [Sunday]."
Price allowed 12 goals in the series; he had 30 saves in the second and third periods of Game 6.
Price led the NHL or shared the lead in three of the major categories during the regular season: wins (44), goals-against average (1.96), and save percentage (.933).
The absence of Bishop for last year's series against Montreal was a major reason the Lightning were swept. Bishop rebounded with a solid regular season (40-13-5, 2.32 goals-against average, .916 save percentage), and after some ups and downs against Detroit he made the saves that had to be made in the final two games. That included 31 in Game 7, his first Stanley Cup Playoff shutout. He finished the series with a 1.87 GAA and a .922 save percentage.
Rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy made 13 starts after succeeding Evgeni Nabokov as Bishop's backup and put up solid numbers (2.36 GAA, .918 save percentage). Should something happen to Bishop again, he would give the Lightning a better chance of winning than they had last year.
Therrien got the most out of his lineup during the regular season and that continued against the Senators. The bottom line is, Therrien finds a way to give the Canadiens the best chance to succeed.
He made subtle lineup changes throughout the season and did it again at times against the Senators. He's a proactive coach capable of making adjustments on the fly before problems arise.
He has coached the Canadiens to back-to-back opening round series victories for the first time since 1993, the last time Montreal won the Stanley Cup.
Cooper led the Lightning to the playoffs in each of his two full seasons since being hired in March 2013. He did an excellent job making adjustments after losses in Games 1, 3 and 5, and was able to help the Lightning survive two nervous periods in Game 7 before scoring twice in the third period. One move that paid off was dressing 11 forwards and seven defensemen in Games 6 and 7, helping shut down Detroit's quick attackers. Though Cooper doesn't have much NHL experience, he did coach Norfolk, then the Lightning affiliate in the American Hockey League, to the Calder Cup in 2012.
The power play, a source of concern in the regular season, was one again. The Canadiens scored one goal in 20 man-advantage opportunities against the Senators.
It's an area that needs to improve. The power play played a big role last postseason in a seven-game series victory against the Boston Bruins, and it finished eighth in the playoffs with a 19.7 percent efficiency.
The penalty-killing unit went 15-of-20 in the first round (75 percent) with defensemen Subban, Emelin, Gilbert and Petry, and forwards Plekanec, Prust and Eller playing significant roles. Eller scored a shorthanded goal in a 4-3 victory in Game 1.
Tampa Bay, 18th on the power play during the regular season, had plenty of opportunities against Detroit but struggled to score. The Lightning were 2-for-30 and allowed a shorthanded goal. Stamkos had 13 power-play goals during the regular season, so his struggles to score were a major problem. The penalty killers, who were seventh during the regular season (83.7 percent), allowed five goals to Detroit on 29 tries (82.8 percent) and contributed two shorthanded goals.
Right Wing - MTL
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 2
SOG: 22 | +/-: 2
Brendan Gallagher -- The 22-year-old right wing does a little bit of everything when he's on the ice. He can create havoc in front of the opposing goalie, deliver a body check to deny space, is never at a loss for words, and can score in the clutch. He plays a lot bigger than his 5-foot-9, 182-pound frame suggests, and his grit and determined effort each shift have made him tremendously popular in Montreal. The Canadiens will need Gallagher to continue to make life difficult for the opposition while producing on offense every so often. He scored an NHL-career-high 24 goals and finished third on the Canadiens with six game-winning goals. Gallagher scored the decisive goal in Game 6, batting in a puck that hit his back 13:26 into the first period.
Right Wing - TBL
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 3
SOG: 12 | +/-: 5
Ryan Callahan -- Stamkos' linemate is the kind of gritty, two-way forward who should thrive in games that figure to see a battle for every inch of ice. Callahan had three assists in the first round and was plus-5, tying him with Kucherov for best among Lightning forwards. Callahan had 24 goals and a career-best 54 points during the regular season. One of his tasks against Montreal will be to get to the net to try to make life difficult for Price, who figures to stop just about everything he sees.
CANADIENS WILL WIN IF ... They can find a way to spark their power play. It is possible to win with a struggling power play (see Boston in its run to the Stanley Cup in 2011), but it is never easy. Montreal does not score enough goals at even strength to survive a prolonged drought on the man-advantage. Montreal scored 189 goals in the regular season, the lowest total in the Eastern Conference and tied for lowest in the League. Yes, Price is a fine insurance policy, but he needs some goals to work with, and that is where the power play needs to be helpful.
LIGHTNING WILL WIN IF ... Stamkos and Bishop play up to their capabilities. The Lightning survived the Red Wings despite Stamkos' lack of scoring. He had five goals and seven points in Tampa Bay's regular-season sweep of Montreal, including two game-winning goals. Tampa Bay gets scoring from multiple lines, but Stamkos is their home-run hitter and they need him to start finding the back of the net. Bishop struggled at times against Detroit and had some shaky moments early in Game 7. But he played well enough to get the Lightning past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and that should give him a confidence boost as the playoffs progress.