Can Lightning Strike 4 Straight Times?

          Not for a knee injury to goaltender Carey Price during last year’s playoff run, the Montreal Canadiens may have found themselves in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings. Despite the fact that’s not how things played out, the Habs came into this season with high hopes of surpassing last year’s results in competing for hockey’s ultimate prize this time around. While the team may have been dying a rematch with the New York Rangers in the Conference Finals, the present order of business is to take care of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.

           If Montreal was taking Tampa Bay lightly, they now have cause for concern as the Lightning are now taking the series back to the state of Florida with a 2-0 lead, handily winning both games at the Bell Centre. To make matters worse, the team’s superstar Steven Stamkos appears to have finally awoken from his slumber. The sniper finally scored his first goal of the playoffs on Sunday night, forcing the Habs’ Hart Trophy candidate to do the splits in the crease to no avail as Stamkos deked around him and slid the puck in the net.

           And yet as much as experts around the NHL would gladly contend that Stamkos should be Montreal’s number one concern defensively throughout the series given the fact that a player of his caliber is bound to breakout sooner or later, it’s not Stamkos leading the charge early in the series for Tampa Bay.

          Thus far it’s actually been Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov who have caused the most damage. Kucherov scored twice in the team’s Game 2 win on Sunday, and Johnson leads the team in scoring in these playoffs with 7 goals and 3 assists. That’s 10 points in 8 games, and a lot of those points have come in key situations that led the team to victory, as is usually the case when it comes to offensive production in the postseason.

          Add to Tampa’s scoring a solid and healthy Ben Bishop in goal, and Montreal’s Brandon Prust publicly calling out the refereeing after Game 2, which will surely give the team trouble as the series moves forward and it appears there’s no stopping the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s especially true considering the Lightning won every single game of the regular season series between the two clubs as well.

           The question now is not only whether Montreal can make a comeback in the series and keep it respectable, but whether the Tampa Bay Lightning actually have a realistic shot at sweeping the Habs. Conventional wisdom might say no just because Montreal is one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup this year, but it appears that the Lightning are the hottest team in hockey outside of the Anaheim Ducks and no matter who has home ice advantage in the series, at the end of the day, it’s about who is playing better in the moment. And the Tampa Bay Lightning are definitely playing better right now.

          Without question, the end result of Game 3, scheduled for Wednesday in Tampa Bay will go a long way towards determining whether or not the Lightning can indeed achieve the improbable and sweep Montreal, not only from a practical standpoint given that they would obviously need a 3-0 lead to put themselves in position to sweep, but also from a morale of standpoint. A win on Wednesday gives the Lightning an opportunity to strike fear in all of the remaining teams in the playoffs and continue to build their confidence as they pursue bringing the Stanley Cup back to Tampa Bay for the first time since the franchise won its first ever title back in 2004 over the Calgary Flames.

           Whether or not Tampa Bay wins four games in a row however, it’s obvious the franchise is a force to be reckoned with and that’s a scary thought given that the team’ leading scorer just now decided to show up to the party, a party that could have the state of Florida preparing for a Stanley Cup parade by the middle of next month.