The Montreal Canadiens had plenty to prove this time around, thanks to the manner in which the Ottawa Senators manhandled the Habs in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs a year ago.
Montreal had put together an outstanding lockout-shortened 2013 season, only to be sent packing early in a swift five games. There was lots of blame to be spread around.
Netminder Carey Price struggled and incurred a groin injury. Leading scorer Max Pacioretty failed to score a goal and missed Game 2 with an upper-body injury. The tight checking of Tomas Plekanec was missing as he went an unusual minus-five. Lars Eller was knocked out with a concussion and facial fractures in the series opener after he was hit hard by Ottawa defenceman Eric Gryba.
The beating by the Senators was embarrassing, but the memory of that defeat played a role in the Canadiens' whitewashing of the Tampa Bay Lighting in this year's first round, the historic franchise's first series sweep since 1993.
"I didn't really feel like I got a lot of taste of playing in the playoffs last year," Eller told the Montreal Gazette. "So this is definitely sweet right now."
Better goaltending lurking
That sweetness may sour next week when the Canadiens resume their playoff run against the winner of the Boston Bruins-Detroit Red Wings first-round series that Boston leads 2-1.
The Habs know they will face better goaltending and more playoff experience in the next round than the Lightning could offer in the last seven days. Still, the Canadiens deserve full marks for their quick dismissal of Tampa Bay.
Some of the standouts:
P.K. Subban was dynamic and at his best.
Price has carried on his outstanding season that included a strong performance at the Winter Olympics. He returned from Sochi to miss three weeks with a lower-body injury and has picked up where he left. Including his four wins against Tampa Bay, Price has a 12-3-0 record and .926 save percentage since his injury.
Thomas Vanek has been an excellent addition to the Montreal lineup. He has scored seven times in his 22 games (playoffs included) in a Habs sweater, but more importantly the Canadiens have gone 15-6-1 since Vanek came aboard in a trade with the Islanders.
The inclusion of Vanek has given Montreal tremendous depth up front, illustrated by the fact that 10 different players combined to score the team's 16 goals in the series against the Lightning.
All four lines contributed the offensive cause:
"We have all the components to be successful in the playoffs, I really believe that," Eller said. "We have a star goaltender, solid defence and in this series we really showed that we play as a team that didn't rely on extraordinary individual performances. That's how you'll succeed going forward."
Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien rewarded his players with two days away from the rink before they reconvene for practice to prepare for the second round. The extra week off will benefit the Canadiens if they plan on prevailing to the East final, allowing injured players Travis Moen and Alex Galchenyuk further time to heal.
Moen has been back skating and practicing after he suffered a concussion in a game on March 24. Galchenyuk has been out with a lower-body injury after he fell hard on his knee in a game in Chicago on April 9.
A question for Therrien, however, will be to figure out whether or not to break up a winning lineup when these two players are ready to return. But it's a question the Canadiens head coach doesn't have to answer for several days.
Habs by the numbers
0 -- Special teams goal differential for the Canadiens in the series against Tampa Bay. They scored twice on the power play, yielded two man-short goals, scored a shorthanded goal and gave up a shorthander.
3, 34 -- Minutes and seconds that the Canadiens trailed in the series. The last time Montreal was behind was midway through the second period of the series opener.
22 -- Series sweeps for the Montreal franchise, a record among major North American pro sports teams.
33 -- Times the Canadiens have met the Bruins in the playoffs, including three times in the last six years.
1978 -- The last time Montreal faced the Red Wings in a playoff series.
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