Jitters are taking over the pits of various stomachs, anticipation is rising, and in unguarded moments, NHL players will tell you they never quite get used to the emotional surge that accompanies the opening of the playoffs.
“I think it actually gets worse,” laughed the Montreal Canadiens’ Brandon Prust, who will return to the lineup against the Tampa Bay Lightning after almost a month on the sidelines with an upper-body injury.
The scrappy winger is expected to play with centre Tomas Plekanec and hard-driving Brendan Gallagher.
Montreal’s Michael Bournival will be making his playoff debut alongside Daniel Brière and Dale Weise.
That’s nominally the Habs’ fourth line, but these are not exactly grinders.
The Habs’ last playoff series was a bruising, emotional meeting with the Ottawa Senators, but Montreal coach Michel Therrien expects the premium this time around will be on ability, not violence.
“These are two teams built on speed, skill and quickness,” he said.
On the Lightning side of the ledger, a plethora of players will be seeing their first post-season action in the NHL.
That’s mitigated by the fact that most of them have played on championship teams in the American Hockey League.
“We have that familiarity with each other,” said top-line forward Tyler Johnson, who is the sort of small, darting forward that hockey fans most often associated with the Habs.
In the next breath Johnson, a third-year pro, cautioned that “we’ve never done this at this level before, though.”
Puck drop, slated for just after 7 p.m., (CBC, RDS) can’t come soon enough.
NOT BEN BISHOP
As usual, Carey Price is in nets for Montreal, he didn’t speak to the media, as is customary on game days, and appeared focused in the Habs’ dressing room after a short pre-game skate.
It’s expected the Lightning will go with towering Swede Anders Lindback in goal (although all coach Jon Cooper would say when asked who his goaltender would be was “not Ben Bishop").
Though Lindback has underwhelming stats this season (.891 save percentage), he has won all three of his starts since taking over from the injured Bishop – who skated before practice – posting shutouts in two of them and stopping 77 of 79 shots.
Tampa coach Jon Cooper said the club has done a good job cutting down on scoring chances in the past couple of weeks, and that Lindback, who made a back-door save to deny the Washington Capitals a goal in the season finale that the coach called “insane,” has been making “all the saves he should make, and a few that he shouldn’t.”
“We’re very confident as a group, I’m just excited to be here,” Lindback said.
We’re assured he’s better at goaltending than he is at dispensing witticisms.
SPOTLIGHT ON STAMKOS
When Tampa centre Steven Stamkos last played in the post-season it was game seven of the conference finals against the Boston Bruins and he took a puck in the face, creating considerable adversity for his nose.
In the intervening seasons, the Lightning missed the playoffs. “I’m a lot more comfortable in this situation this time around. To be honest, I’m sure there will be some nerves, as there will for everyone heading into the first playoff game, but once that puck drops I’ve been in these situations before so I know what to expect,” he said.
That’s true, to a point.
In the series against the Bruins, Stamkos was a 21-year-old wunderkind on a team that featured Stanley Cup winners like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.
Now, he’s the one with the “C” on his jersey.
“The spotlight is on Stammer, no question. But the spotlight has been on Stammer since he was 16 years old,” said Cooper.
It’s a situation that suits the Toronto-area native because, as teammate Victor Hedman put it, “he’s a natural leader, a born leader.”
WORLD JUNIOR REUNION
Speaking of Stamkos, he played minor hockey both with and against the Canadiens’ P.K. Subban – they also played for Junior Team Canada in 2008, winning gold – and it seems both players’ parents are in town for the playoff opener.
Knowing each other as they do, don’t be surprised if the television cameras show them sitting together.
That 2008 World Junior has yielded many NHL luminaries, and several of them (Lars Eller, Max Pacioretty, Hedman) will be playing in this series.
It's no secret Canadians support a healthy part of the Florida economy, but that's particularly true of downtown Tampa this week.
The conservative estimate of Canadian media members covering the Habs and Lightning is 45 - the major sports broadcasters are down here in battle-group numbers.
And that figure doesn't include producers, camera operators and assorted technicians, who probably number in the teens (some work in satellite trucks and such, which is why we couldn't count them all).
Such is life when only one Canadian NHL team makes the playoffs.