carey price

As the NHL schedule winds to a close, there’s still a number of playoff matchups to be determined. In the West, however, it’s almost certain the Chicago Blackhawks will be going head-to-head with the Colorado Avalanche thanks to the NHL’s new format that sees the two and three seeds from every division face each other in round one. In the East, that format makes it clear that Tampa Bay and Montreal will be paired up to duke it out.

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And damn, is that going to be one close playoff series.

The Lightning are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, while the Canadiens are 8-2-0 over that same span. Both teams are playing well during a time on the NHL schedule when teams begin scrapping for every last point they can muster, which is a real testament to the make-up of both groups. Tampa scores a bit more (barely), while Montreal gives up fewer goals (barely). They both rely on undersized forwards who contribute. The both have great goaltending. They are, if you haven’t picked up on the direction I’m headed here, very similar teams.

So then, the differences that will decide their inevitable series:

Goaltending

Carey Price and Ben Bishop have been two of the NHL’s best goaltenders this year, both potential Vezina candidates in a year filled with many. Their comparables (Bishop on top, Price on bottom):

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Yeah not bad. The question is, who can maintain that level of play for their team in the post-season?

I say, advantage Habs, based purely on experience.

Carey Price hasn’t been an exceptional playoff goaltender in the NHL to date, sporting only a .905 save percentage in 30 starts, but at 26-years-old you’d expect him to start settling in during more big pressure moments. He’s fresh off winning Olympic gold, and while Canada dominated, he made some big saves in close games to ensure they were able to stay on top. He also lifted the Calder Cup in the AHL, which saw him post a .936 save percentage in 22 starts – he was named MVP of playoffs for that showing. I think he’s primed for a great post-season.

In the other corner, we have Ben Bishop, whose never started a playoff game in his career. Actually, that’s not entirely true – he did see 59 minutes of action in a single AHL playoff game. Bishop, at 27, is having a career year, but it’s a lot to ask of a guy to roll into the Centre Bell and hold down the fort in a series that many expect to be awfully close. Goals won’t be easy to come by.

The Habs and Lightning have played four times this year: this first game ended in a shootout, the next in a shootout, the next in overtime, and the fourth was a one-goal game with an empty netter.

That means big time pressure on the goaltenders.

Coaching

Michel Therrien is not my favorite coach in the NHL. I’ve heard too many stories from ex-players of his that don’t exactly end in “He’s the type of guy you want to run through a brick wall for.” He’s been behind the bench as a head coach for parts of nine NHL seasons, and has won a total of four playoff series in that time. While neither of those things qualify him as a bad coach, they certainly don’t do the opposite either.

The thing with being a bench boss is that sometimes you’re just handed a roster that can’t do it. I wouldn’t hazard an exact guess at what percentage coaching makes up on the pie chart of winning, but it can’t be much more than a single digit.

Regardless, in a close series like this that small percentage could put one team over the top, and in this case, I think Tampa has the edge.

Jon Cooper may be a rookie coach in the NHL, but he’s no stranger to winning. He’s taken Tampa Bay from 14th in the Eastern Conference to currently 3rd, and his past reflects more changes like that. Everywhere he goes, he wins. He won a couple league championships coaching in the NAHL, won a championship coaching in the USHL, won a championship coaching in the AHL. He’s gone the distance before. And, in his first NHL season, he might win coach of the year.

I’ve established before that I like communicators. As I tweeted last night:

You have to talk like a human to your guys to make sure you’re on the same page.

I think Cooper is an open-minded guy who would be willing to change strategy on the fly, who demands a lot from his players, and has a good sense for which players work best together.

***

There are obviously differences that separate these two teams throughout the lineup. The Lightning have some bigger guys on their back-end, but also rely a lot on the success of smaller, younger players like Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. The Canadiens have an older team (on average) than the Lightning which could help them better understand what to expect and how to prepare.

Whatever the case, I think all the small differences will even out, and it will come down which goaltender can keep the soft ones out, and which coach is willing to be flexible and creative when they see that things aren’t going well.

I’ll have predictions up before the puck drops on playoffs. I still don’t know which way to go with this one.