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Five reasons why the Canadiens advanced

by Arpon Basu

The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning appeared to be two evenly matched teams entering their Eastern Conference First Round series.

They finished one point apart in the standings and three of their four regular-season games were decided after regulation time. The fourth was decided in the third period.

A seven-game series was expected, but the Canadiens completed a four-game sweep with a last-minute 4-3 win at Bell Centre on Tuesday.

Health is a big reason for the dramatic change from the tight season series. The Canadiens, for the most part, had it and the Lightning didn't, losing one of their most important players, goaltender Ben Bishop, to a dislocated elbow before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But injuries were far from the only factor working in favor of the Canadiens. Here are five more:

1. Experience

The 2014 Lightning were essentially in the same position as the 2013 Canadiens.

Last year, the Canadiens were the higher seed facing the Ottawa Senators, and a series of bad breaks and injuries led to Montreal losing that series in five games.

It was the first experience in the playoffs for a number of key Canadiens players, including forwards Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher. Adversity struck, and they didn't know how to handle it amid the pressure-packed playoff environment in Montreal.

This time it was the Canadiens who were on the giving end and it was the Lightning who had trouble managing the adversity in the playoffs after going through a season defined by it.

"I thought we did a really good job not getting lost; we stayed in our bubble," Canadiens forward Daniel Briere said after Game 4. "It's not easy here in Montreal, a lot of [media] coverage, the only team in Canada still alive. We did a really good job taking care of business and what we had to do in this series."

Next time, the Lightning will be better equipped to handle the pressure. They only need look at the team that knocked them out of these playoffs.

2. Forecheck

The Canadiens successfully flustered the Lightning in their ability to get the puck out of their zone cleanly throughout the series, consistently forcing turnovers at the Tampa Bay blue line or in the neutral zone. That forecheck extended shifts in the offensive end and thwarted attempts by the Lightning to generate offense before they could get started.

The Lightning appeared confused by the Canadiens' forechecking scheme, which resembled a classic neutral-zone trap but was defined by hard-working forwards who pressured the puck all over the ice.

The Lightning spoke between every game of the series of their need to limit their turnovers then went out and committed some more in the same fashion, forcing the puck into areas the Canadiens weren't giving them. The turnovers led to at least one Montreal goal per game, often times more, and Tampa Bay had no answer for it.

"We could see right from Game 1 that our game plan, if we stuck to that, we knew it would work," Canadiens center Lars Eller said. "But it wasn't anything complicated. It was really simple and straightforward."

3. Balance

The Canadiens' top line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek scored three goals in the series. If anyone would have said that would happen prior to the series beginning, it likely would have meant the Canadiens lost.

However, that lack of first-line production was compensated for by the emergence of Eller and Rene Bourque, who played on a line with captain Brian Gionta that produced six goals. The line of Gallagher, Tomas Plekanec and Brandon Prust pitched in with five goals. The fourth line of Briere centering Michael Bournival and Dale Weise scored two of the most important goals in the series: Weise's overtime goal in Game 1 and Briere's opening goal in Game 4, the third straight time the Canadiens scored first.

The Canadiens got a goal from each of their four forward lines in two of the four games and all 12 forwards who dressed had at least one point.

"You need contributions from each line; they each have a role to play," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "[Tuesday] night we got that."

4. Shutting down Stamkos

Therrien had three forward lines and two defense pairings that liked matching against the Lightning top line of Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. The ability to throw multiple looks at Stamkos limited him to two assists in the final three games.

The Plekanec and Eller lines were given most of the defensive- and neutral-zone draws against Stamkos, and in the offensive zone Therrien used the Desharnais line. On defense, as long as one of the top two pairs of Andrei Markov with Alexei Emelin or P.K. Subban with Josh Gorges was facing Stamkos, Therrien was at ease.

Designating a single shutdown line to check a world-class talent can get tiring over the course of a series. Having options meant Therrien had fresher players available to try to meet that task.

5. Playing with the lead

At 16:39 of the second period of Game 1, Gionta scored off his rebound on a shorthanded breakaway to tie the game 2-2. The Canadiens would not trail again the rest of the series.

The Lightning held the lead for 3:34 of the 258:08 played, with Montreal scoring first in the final three games. In the two games in Montreal, the Canadiens scored at 0:11 of the first period in Game 3 and at 2:24 of the first in Game 4.

The neutral-zone trap that befuddled the Lightning could not have been used if the Canadiens were trailing. They would have been forced to open up, and that in turn probably would have created counterattack opportunities for the Lightning.

Instead, the Canadiens spent the series waiting for the Lightning to make mistakes and capitalized on them, a luxury afforded them by the fact they could look up at the scoreboard and feel perfectly comfortable with the situation.

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