Setting the mood
Despite cracking the 100-point plateau for just the second time since winning the Stanley Cup in 1993, the Habs will be forced to start the first round of the playoffs on the road in Tampa thanks to the NHL’s new playoff format. With five of the last six Stanley Cups having been clinched by the visiting team, the comforts of home aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be at the NHL level, and after watching the Lightning earn an extra point in a shootout against the Capitals on Sunday, Josh Gorges sees the potential advantage to starting the series on road ice.
“It gives us an opportunity to just play a really simple, playoff-style road game,” explained the veteran blue-liner, who will be taking part in his 52nd career NHL postseason game on Wednesday. “We don’t have to impress anybody or go out there and make cute plays and impress a crowd that’s going to be amped up and ready to go. We just have to go out and get a win, whatever that takes. One of the good things about starting on the road is we can just grind it out and do anything we can to get a win.”
Part of the recipe for a first round series win against the Bolts will be shutting down two-time Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner Steven Stamkos, who will be heading into the playoffs well-rested after missing 45 games with a broken leg this season. In 20 games since making his return, the All-Star centerman has racked up 11 goals and 17 points, and will be a focal point every time he touches the ice in Round 1.
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“Our players know their responsibilities out there and they know where to be on the ice. We’ll try to get the right players out at the right time, but we don’t want to ruin our tempo to get our match-ups,” shared head coach Michel Therrien. “I think the Lightning have a similar mentality when it comes to the tempo of the game. You want to have the right guys out there, but when you don’t have last change, sometimes it’s out of your control.”
If Therrien does get his way, it’s likely Tomas Plekanec could once again be called on to play a shutdown role for the Habs. Having earned his stripes as one of the best two-way forwards in the league over the past few years, the 31-year-old not only helped shut down Stamkos in his only game against Montreal this season, he also finished with a plus-1 differential at the Lightning captain’s expense.
“He’s got one of the best shots in the league so when you give him that one-timer from the side there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to end up somewhere around the net. Don’t let him shoot,” offered Plekanec regarding the secret to stifling an offensive star like Stamkos. “We’ll see what our role will be, but whoever is against him on the ice, you don’t want to let him shoot.”
If Stamkos does manage to muster a few shots towards the Canadiens’ net, he’ll also have to find a way to get pucks past three-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Carey Price. That hasn’t been an easy feat for the Lightning this year, with Price entering the series with a 1.42 goals-against average and .956 save percentage in four games against Tampa in 2013-14.
“I expect Carey Price to be the same leader for us that he’s been all season long,” confirmed Therrien on his starting netminder. “He’s been dominant and solid. He’s matured and he’s playing with a lot of confidence. I’m not worried about Carey Price. We all know that to have success in the playoffs, you need good goaltending, but we don’t want him to be a savoir. We just need him to be good. We ask all our players to be good. But coming into the playoffs, I’m very confident in Carey.”
At the other end of the ice, it’s possible Tampa will be without the services of Ben Bishop for at least part of the first round. The Lightning netminder missed the last three games of the year after suffering an injury against the Maple Leafs, but having watched Anders Lindback cap off a week that saw him rack up a 3-0-0 record with a 0.67 goals-against average and a .975 save percentage, Gorges isn’t expecting any easy goals against the Bolts’ backup.
“They’ve got good goaltending no matter who’s in the lineup. Our mindset and our game plan can’t change,” stressed Gorges. “No matter who’s in net for them, if you want to score in the playoffs you have to be willing to go to the dirty areas. You have to be willing to get to the net, get those second and third opportunities, look for tips, and look for screens. That’s the only way you’re going to score in the playoffs and it doesn’t matter what goalie they have in net.”
Helping the Canadiens’ cause on offense, proven postseason stud Briere will have a chance to put some of his clutch scoring on display against Tampa. Entering Wednesday’s tilt with 109 points in 108 career postseason games, the Habs’ sharpshooter is ready to continue his torrid playoff scoring pace in his postseason debut with Montreal.
“I want to be the player who will make the difference and that’s how I approach every game. There’s no pressure; this is where I want to be,” underlined Briere, who has 50 playoff goals on his resume to date, including 13 game winners. “When I signed in Montreal, I signed with a team that had a chance to win. We’re in the playoffs and our focus now is on the first round against Tampa Bay.
“I like our chances,” he added. “It won’t be easy, but I’m excited about it like everyone else. When you get to the playoffs, it’s a different season. There’s no tomorrow. Every game is a big one and I can’t wait to get started.”