Canadiens need to do more than tinker to become true Cup contender

Max Pacioretty (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

In light of the Montreal Canadiens exiting the playoffs with a whimper Tuesday night, now is as good a time to ask the question. What exactly are the Montreal Canadiens? Are they a team on the rise that is a couple of pieces away from being a Stanley Cup winner or has their success been a mirage orchestrated by an all-world goaltender and a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman in the prime of his career?

The Canadiens will have to answer those questions this off-season. More specifically, GM Marc Bergevin will. On one hand, they were three points away from winning the Presidents’ Trophy. On the other hand, they were one of the worst possession teams in the NHL, had a terrible power play and looked very ordinary against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.

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Lightning rely on stingy defense to beat Habs in Game 6, move on to Eastern Final

Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop and Habs counterpart Carey Price shake hands after the Lightning eliminated the Canadiens in Game 6 of their second-round series Tuesday. (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Lightning finished the 2014-15 NHL season with the same number of wins as the Montreal Canadiens, but because Tampa Bay had two fewer regulation time losses than Montreal, the Habs won the Atlantic Division and the Bolts finished second. However, as the second-round playoff series between the two teams demonstrated, Tampa’s roster had more balance and scoring prowess and commitment to defense equal to the Canadiens’ – and at no point was that clearer than Tuesday in Game 6, when the Lightning limited Montreal’s chances and made the most of their own en route to winning the game 3-1 and sending the Habs home for the summer with a 4-2 series victory.

The Bolts held the Canadiens to just six shots in each of the first and third periods and 19 on the night. Tampa was the better possession team and only gave Montreal two power play opportunities Tuesday. And although they got a goal from star and captain Steven Stamkos, the Lightning also continued to get goals from players throughout the lineup: Nikita Kucherov opened the scoring with 4:25 left in the opening frame – one of two goals and three points he’d post in Game 6, giving him six goals and 11 points in 13 playoff games – and Ondrej Palat chipped in his third goal of the post-season.

With that type of support at both ends of the ice, Ben Bishop’s job was made easier – but you still have to give the much-maligned Bolts goalie credit for coming through when Montreal did challenge him. He certainly wasn’t perfect in the series, but Bishop didn’t wilt under the heat of the moment and allowed just five goals in Tampa’s four second-round wins. And he retained his sense of humor after the game when he made reference to a P.K. Subban comment earlier in the series:

At the other end of the ice, there was Canadiens MVP Carey Price. Unlike so many nights this season, Price couldn’t singlehandedly save the Canadiens in Game 6. But his .889 save percentage wasn’t the reason why Montreal lost. Their lack of support on offense for him is the reason for their elimination. Read more

Bolts’ Steven Stamkos scores crucial goal on Habs’ Carey Price in Game 6

Tampa's Steven Stamkos shoots on Montreal's Carey Price in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference second round Tuesday. (Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

With just two goals in 12 games heading into Game 6 against Montreal, Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in the 2015 post-season. But he scored a massive goal on Canadiens netminding menace Carey Price early in the second period Tuesday that greatly helps his odds of winning his first Stanley Cup.

Holding a 3-2 series lead on the Habs, the Bolts were leading 1-0 in Game 6 when Stamkos received a pass from Alex Killorn and toe-dragged the puck before wiring a wrist shot through Montreal defenseman Jeff Petry’s legs and over Price’s blocker to double Tampa’s lead: Read more

Canadiens rely on – who else? – star goalie Carey Price in Game 5 win over Bolts

Carey Price (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Staring elimination in the face for the second straight game Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens scratched and clawed their way to their second consecutive victory in the second round against Tampa Bay, beating the Lightning 2-1 to force a Game 6 in Florida Tuesday. And although (insert sarcasm font/code here) you might not believe it, (end sarcasm font/code) Habs goalie Carey Price was one of the main reasons why – and one of the reasons why his team might do the virtually impossible and force a game 7 Thursday at Bell Centre.

Price wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with shots in Game 5: Tampa Bay was outshot by Montreal in the first two periods, and the Bolts managed just six shots on him in the second frame. But it was the caliber of saves he made, including one on Brendan Morrow late in the second period and this one – arguably his best stop of the post-season – on Valtteri Filppula some seven-and-a-half minutes into the third (with the Habs clinging to a 1-0 lead): Read more

Smith-Pelly gets Canadiens on board first in Game 5 with slick wrist shot

Devante Smith-Pelly and Ben Bishop (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Montreal right winger Devante Smith-Pelly hasn’t scored a lot of goals since he was acquired from Anaheim Feb. 24 – in fact, he’d scored just once in 30 games (regular season and playoffs combined) with the Habs heading into Saturday’s second-round action against Tampa Bay – but his second goal was a big one, as it was the first of Game 5 in an elimination showdown for the Canadiens.

The 22-year-old Smith-Pelly, who the Ducks traded in exchange for left winger Jiri Sekac, may have been the beneficiary of another sub-par goal from Bolts goalie Ben Bishop in the first period Saturday at Bell Centre. But he still deserves credit for getting the puck just under the crossbar with a wrist shot at the 9:01 mark to make it 1-0 Montreal: Read more

How to snuff out a superstar

Oshawa's Cole Cassels  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

The Oshawa Generals knew they had a tall task on their hands. Facing Erie in the OHL final, the Gens had to figure out a way to stop Otters superstar Connor McDavid, who came into Game 1 with a dizzying 42 points in 15 playoff games. At the end of the night, McDavid had been on the ice for more goals-against than goals-for and the Gens thrilled their fans with a 4-1 win.

If Game 1 was any indication, this series will be fought in both the trenches and the war rooms. Oshawa’s strategy for battening down McDavid was to have Vancouver Canucks prospect Cole Cassels on against the consensus No. 1 pick overall in the NHL draft this summer as much as possible.

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Canadiens chase Bishop from net, avoid sweep with Game 4 win over Bolts

Canadiens stars Carey Price and P.K. Subban celebrate their Game 4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday. (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

With a 6-2 blowout win over Tampa Bay Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens avoided the ignominy of being swept in their second-round showdown against the Lightning team they swept in the first round of the 2013-14 post-season. But although they’re headed back to Montreal and an undoubtedly-electric Bell Centre for Game 5 Saturday, the Habs are still very much behind the eight-ball.

As they showed in Round 1 vs. Detroit, the Lightning aren’t a perfect team and are perfectly capable of coming up with a flat effort or two in a series. But the Habs will be facing a Bolts squad that has yet to lose two consecutive games in these playoffs and it remains a near-insurmountable task for them to sweep the final four games of this battle. Read more