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Montr?al Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning.

PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals; Game 1.

TIME: Friday, 7 p.m. EDT.

Strong goaltending, production from their top line and an outstanding performance against the opposition's best player helped the Montreal Canadiens survive the opening round of the playoffs.

More of the same will be needed if the Canadiens are to have a chance against the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning.

Coming off an improbable victory in the conference quarterfinals, the Canadiens hope to carry that momentum into the opener of their semifinal series against the well-rested Lightning.

Having never rallied from a 3-1 playoff series deficit in their 95-year history, the Canadiens appeared headed for the offseason when the Boston Bruins moved within one win of the second round with a 4-3 victory in double overtime of Game 4.

Montreal, however, rebounded to win the next two games by a combined 10-3 score, forcing Game 7 in Boston on Monday.

Jose Theodore saved his best performance of the series for the most important game, recording his first career playoff shutout in a 2-0 victory that eliminated the archrival Bruins.

"Our players showed a lot of character," Montreal coach Claude Julien said. "It would have been easy to throw in the towel after we lost that fourth game."

Richard Zednik scored both goals in Game 7 on assists from linemates Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev, who seemed to get better after his giveaway led to Boston's winning goal in Game 4.

Theodore was outplayed by Boston's Andrew Raycroft at the start of the series, but stopped 97 of the final 100 shots he faced, culminating with a stellar Game 7.

"Teams are successful because of goaltending in this league," Julien said. "He was at his best when it really counted."

Theodore will be facing a more potent offense, as the Lightning were one of the league's highest-scoring teams in the regular season with 245 goals. Tampa Bay, however, didn't need to score much in its first-round win over the New York Islanders because Nikolai Khabibulin was almost perfect in five games.

Khabibulin recorded three shutouts and stopped 137 of 141 shots for a remarkable .972 save percentage.

After a slow start, Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis had four goals and an assist in the final three games. St. Louis, the NHL scoring leader during the regular season and a Hart Trophy finalist, ended the series with an overtime goal in Game 5.

Outstanding series from Khabibulin and St. Louis helped the Lightning finish off the Islanders on Saturday, leaving them with plenty of time to rest up for the Canadiens.

"Teams that win the Stanley Cup, they get those rests in between each series. It's very important," Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said.

The Lightning advanced to the second round last season, but were limited to seven goals in a five-game loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion New Jersey.

"I think last year we went through the steps of being satisfied," Tortorella said. "You have to take each game at a time and each round at a time. I don't think this team will be as satisfied as we were last year."

St. Louis isn't the only member of the Lightning that played well against New York.

Fredrik Modin led the team with five assists and eight points, and Brad Richards added a goal and four assists. More will be needed from top center Vincent Lecavalier, who was held without a point despite registering 15 shots on goal.

Unlike the Islanders, Montreal features a potent top line that is playing very well heading into this series.

Zednik, Koivu and Kovalev accounted for 10 of the team's 19 goals in the first round. Koivu is the NHL playoff leader with eight assists and 10 points, while Kovalev is tied for the league lead with five goals.

A big key to the Canadiens' win over the Bruins was Montreal's ability to keep Boston's top line of Joe Thornton, Glen Murray and Mike Knuble in check. Murray and Knuble each had two goals, but Montreal held Thornton, clearly not 100 percent healthy, without a point.

Theodore had a lot to with Thornton's ineffectiveness, but defenseman Craig Rivet also was a major contributor. Rivet averaged a team-high 25:06 of ice time per game and was a plus-6 while often matched up against Boston's top unit.

Tampa Bay should have left wing Cory Stillman in the lineup Friday. Stillman, the team's second-leading scorer in the regular season, missed most of Game 4 and all of Game 5 against the Islanders with a sore left hip.

"You want to play as much as you can, especially in Game 4 and Game 5," Stillman said. "Unfortunately that didn't happen. The good news is that we get another series, and I get to start it. I'm feeling much better."

The Lightning, however, won't have defenseman Jassen Cullimore in this series. Cullimore, a former Canadien, is out indefinitely with a wrist injury.

Montreal is expected to be without defenseman Stephane Quintal and right wing Jason Ward for at least the first two games of this series. Quintal has a shoulder injury and Ward has a neck injury.

Game 2 is Sunday at Tampa.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Canadiens - 7th seed; beat Boston Bruins 4-3, quarterfinals. Lightning - 1st seed; beat New York Islanders 4-1, quarterfinals.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Canadiens - Kovalev, 5 goals; Koivu, 8 assists and 10 points; Sheldon Souray, 12 PIM. Lightning - St. Louis, 4 goals and 8 PIM; Modin, 5 assists and 8 points.

PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Canadiens - Power play: 10.0 percent (3 for 30). Penalty killing: 92.0 percent (23 for 25). Lightning - Power play: 8.7 percent (2 for 23). Penalty killing: 87.5 percent (14 for 16).

GOALTENDERS: Canadiens - Theodore (4-3, 1 SO, 1.86 GAA); Mathieu Garon (no appearances). Lightning - Khabibulin (4-1, 3, 0.79); John Grahame (no appearances).

REGULAR SEASON SERIES: 2-2. The Canadiens won the first two meetings, but the Lightning scored nine goals in taking the final two. St. Louis had four goals and two assists for Tampa Bay, while Koivu led the Canadiens with three goals and seven points.

Associated Press
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