Globe Series Preview
TAMPA (NO. 1) VS MONTREAL (NO. 7)
DID YOU KNOW?: There is no playoff history to speak of between the Lightning and the Canadiens; indeed, the most tenuous connection is broadcaster Jacques Demers, who coached the Habs to the 1993 Stanley Cup championship and was behind the Tampa bench between 1997 and 1999. After the Lightning's MVP candidate, Martin St. Louis, Demers will likely be the most interviewed man in the series. The Lightning holds a 7-5-0-0 edge over the Canadiens in Montreal during the past six seasons, but even that statistic is something of a mirage. At different times during that period, both franchises were in disarray and badly needed rebuilding.
THE BACKSTORY: In some respects, the teams are mirror images of one another. Both rely on one line (Saku Koivu's for Montreal, Brad Richards' for Tampa) for the majority of their offence. Both rely on anonymous defence corps (no that was not a misprint: Tampa's Pavel Kubina actually tied Ottawa's Wade Redden for the regular-season goalscoring lead among NHL defencemen with 17). Both rely on strong goaltending (Nikolai Khabibulin's playoff numbers are out of this world, while José Théodore got better as the Bruins series went along).
STATISTICALLY SPEAKING: No current NHL player has competed in more regular-season games without playing for a champion than Tampa's Dave Andreychuk (1,597 regular-season games over 22 seasons).
THE INJURY WATCH: The Lightning will be without defenceman Jassen Cullimore, likely for the entire round, because of an injured right wrist. Cullimore was lost in the third game of the Islanders' series when he was checked into the boards by Roman Hamrlik. Nolan Pratt took his place in the line-up. Cory Stillman, an 80-point regular-season scorer, missed the deciding game of the New York series with a hip problem, but he skated 75 minutes Tuesday and is expected to play the opener.
TAMPA WINS IF: They understand the opportunity presented to themselves here. The Lightning are in uncharted ground now, having made it to the second round for the second consecutive season. Last year, against the New Jersey Devils, they seemed satisfied to get as far as they did. This year? With the Devils and Ottawa Senators on the sidelines already, there isn't a single team left in the Eastern Conference playoff picture that poses any kind of psychological hurdle to the improving Lightning. A little swagger could go a long way at this stage of the playoffs.
MONTREAL WINS IF: Alexei Kovalev's miraculous appearance midway through the Bruins series carries over into the second round. Kovalev was a goalscorer who wasn't scoring in his first month in a Montreal uniform (three points in 12 games, only one goal, into an empty net), but apart from that unfortunate overtime gaffe in Game 4 (in which he gave up on the puck, in overtime, in the neutral zone, to shake his slashed hand), he played brilliantly in the final five games of the Bruins' series. His presence on the No. 1 line also had a galvanizing effect on both captain Saku Koivu and Richard Zednik and morphed the trio into one of the most dangerous units in the post-season. Suddenly, all the pressure to score wasn't just on the kids - Mike Ribeiro, Michael Ryder and whomever coach Claude Julien happened to put on the line at the time. More of the same against the Lightning and the Canadiens have a decent chance for another upset.
THE OUTLOOK: Ever since winning the Cup in 1993, the Canadiens have won just two playoff rounds until they knocked off Boston this week. Three other times, they'd lost in the first round and five times, they missed the playoffs all together. Tampa, meanwhile, missed the playoffs nine times and won just one series in two post-season appearances in that same time frame. Someone, in other words, is going to put their recent awful playoff history behind them by winning the series. Tradition (and all those playoff ghosts who seemed to have shifted from the Forum to the Bell Centre) suggest it'll be Montreal, but on overall, talent? Tampa is better.
THE PICK: The Lightning in six.
Pretty fair assessment. I'm still going for our Habs though :)
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