Ya can't beat heart

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:45 AM ET


 Now that the Battle of Ontario is over, the Battle of Quebec can begin.

 In Montreal, that's what they're calling the series between their Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team ostensibly led by two Quebecers, Martin St. Louis and Vincent LeCavalier.

 It's a nice allusion but, really, it's an illusion. LeCavalier hasn't done a lot of leading during the playoffs. In fact, he doesn't have a point despite 15 shots on goal.

 That may change when the Eastern Conference semi-final opens in Tampa tonight.

 In an experiment that was something less than a roaring success, coach John Tortorella gave LeCavalier new linemates in Round 1 against the New York Islanders.

 Ever since January, LeCavalier had been playing with St. Louis and Ruslan Fedotenko.

 In an attempt to create two strong scoring lines, Tortorella flipped St. Louis and Cory Stillman, thereby putting St. Louis on a line with Brad Richards and Fredrik Modin.

 That latter group worked well, racking up eight goals and 10 assists in the five first-round games.

 But the other three? Stillman got hurt; LeCavalier was shut out; and Fedotenko had only two goals and no assists.

 So in practice this week, it was back to the old tried-and-true configurations. Stillman says he'll play tonight "for sure" and LeCavalier is back in familiar territory with St. Louis and Fedotenko.

 That gives Montreal coach Claude Julien a bit of a problem. He likes to match top lines, which would mean he has to send out Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev and Richard Zednik against the LeCavalier line.

 But then what does he do when Tampa's second line comes on the ice? The way Modin and Richards have been playing, he'll be hard-pressed to find an answer.

 Julien's defensive lines are a bit short on muscle to handle that trio. And if he tries to use his own second scoring line -- Mike Ribeiro, Michael Ryder and (lately) Yanic Perreault -- he's still facing a size disadvantage.

 In a nutshell, there's the Canadiens' dilemma in this series. They defeated a big Boston Bruins team by using their speed. Now they're facing a team that also has some big players -- but is just as fast as the Canadiens.

 Montreal's biggest hope would be that goaltender Jose Theodore can cover a multitude of his teammates' sins.

 AT HIS PEAK

 It's not out of the question. The longer the opening round went, the better Theodore got, and if he's at his peak he's good enough to win a series single-handedly.

 But it must also be noted that the best goals-against average in the playoffs is 0.79 and it belongs to none other than Nikolai Khabibulin, the guy at the other end.

 Khabibulin's save percentage against the Islanders was .972 and if he keeps that up, the Canadiens will need a lot more than Theodore can give. They'll need divine intervention.

 TEAM WITH GRIT

 There is, however, an intangible that must be considered. The Canadiens are a team with grit and heart. They never give up and they play much bigger than they are. Anyone doubting those assertions can call the Bruins and ask about it.

 Perhaps the Lightning can match that grit. Tortorella is known for his frankness toward his players and the Lightning has had success this year because he has demanded -- and received -- performances that could not previously have been found in the resumes of his players.

 And eventually, that's where the series will be decided. We know the Canadiens can play with heart. We don't know if the Lightning can match that heart -- but that doesn't mean it can't. It just means the Bolts are an unknown quantity.

 If it turns out they can, they'll win. Their talent is better.

 But if they can't, they'll go the way of the Bruins.


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