The Canadiens come in gleeful after rallying to beat Boston. Tampa Bay, which showed it has no trouble handling the favorite tag as it easily dispatched the Islanders, should be heavily favored again.
In Saku Koivu, Richard Zednik and the suddenly rejuvenated Alexei Kovalev, Montreal finally has an intimidating first line. It also has playmakers in Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro, who eluded the Bruins' checkers skillfully in the first round. Of course, the Lightning are greased by nifty winger Martin St. Louis, who is playing like the game's best forward. His series-winning laser in Game 5 against the Islanders showed that he appears ready to repeat last season's stirring playoff showing. Tampa Bay, which has an overlooked weapon in Fredrik Modin's heavy shot, wants to get Vincent Lecavalier into the attack.
Tampa Bay's underrated core of ex-Stars Darryl Sydor and Brad Lukowich, as well as Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina, did a fine job shutting down the Islanders' weak offense. Watch how Nolan Pratt, a veteran but a journeyman, fills in for the injured Jassen Cullimore; Pratt could be vulnerable. The Canadiens' blueliners, led by Sheldon Souray and Patrice Brisebois, who played very well against Boston, have been getting it done. But, boy, do they look shaky sometimes. Craig Rivet, typically solid, is one of a few defenders who can make subtle mistakes that a quick-strike offense such as Tampa Bay's can pounce on.
Though he played very well in the Game 7 clincher, Jose Theodore looked mighty wobbly at times for the Canadiens against Boston. Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin rarely had to be brilliant against the Islanders, but he played well enough to turn in three shutouts. Theodore can have huge games in big spots, but Khabibulin is, at the moment, more consistent.
Montreal's Claude Julien did a nice job of keeping the team focused after late-game theatrics by Ribeiro in Game 3 riled both Bruins and his Canadiens teammates. Then Julien handled Kovalev's Game 4 gaffe masterfully -- first chastising Kovalev for giving up on the game-winning play, then retrenching around him. Lightning coach John Tortorella is strong-willed and very solid on the X's and O's. He has to guard against overcoaching, but his ability to make in-game adjustments could make a difference.
These clubs both have sprightly skill with the man advantage, and both are adequate, if unspectacular, in killing penalties. The Lightning's ability to score short-handed (see: St. Louis, Martin) is what sets them apart.
Just like in the first round, it could come down to which Kovalev comes to play. If he's the powerful, playmaking forward he was for several games against the Bruins, Montreal has a huge asset. Also, after rallying from a 3-1 deficit in Round 1, the Canadiens are starting to sense that there's something special happening on this team. And Montreal is starving for some hockey magic.
The Canadiens are nice story and have played well, but Tampa Bay is better in too many areas. That's why the Lightning will win in five games.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.