The Montreal Canadiens return to the postseason after a one year hiatus and will face their division rival Ottawa Senators in the opening round. Just a year ago, the Canadiens season ended early after finishing 15th in the Eastern Conference standings and 28th overall in the 30 team National Hockey League. Montreal was able to pull themselves out of the cellar of the East all the way to the top of their division, second in the East and the fourth best record in the NHL in just one season.
With their regular season renaissance complete, it is time to focus on the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Senators have battled major injuries to their best players all season but managed to hang in the playoff picture all season and defeated the Boston Bruins on the last day of the regular season to secure the 7th seed. Defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson missed over half the season with an achilles tear, number one center Jason Spezza has only played 5 games all year and a potential Vezina Trophy winning campaign by goaltender Craig Anderson was halted due to time missed to injury. Rugged wingers Milan Michalek and Guillaume Latendresse as well as Jared Cowen also missed significant time for Ottawa. The good news for the Sens is that all but Spezza are healthy heading into game one on Thursday night in Montreal.
The only significant injury the Habs are dealing with heading into the series is hard hitting defender Alexei Emelin’s injured knee, which will keep him out of action for the rest of the season.
Offensively, the Canadiens have spread the scoring around all year. Their deep, balanced attack was the reason for much of their success this season. Montreal boasts eight different players who scored double digits in goals during this shortened season. The only other team in the league with eight players who scored ten goals is the Pittsburgh Penguins who picked up three of them at the deadline in Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Jussi Jokinen.
Max Pacioretty led the Habs in scoring with 39 points, followed closely by Norris Trophy candidate P.K. Subban who led all defencemen in the NHL with 38 points. The streaky Michael Ryder led the team in goals with 16, netting 10 in a Habs sweater after a mid season deal brought him back to Montreal from the Dallas Stars.
Overall the Canadiens 146 goals was good for fourth most in the NHL, a tribute to their three lines that are capable of bringing consistent offense as well as several defencemen who chipped in on the scoreboard.
The Senators struggled offensively this season, finishing the shortened campaign with just 112 goals, the lowest of any playoff team and the 27th most in the league. Their top scorer, Kyle Turris finished with 12 goals and 29 points, tied with rookie Cory Conacher for tops on the Senators.
Ottawa's low goal scoring total is slightly misleading as they battled so many injuries throughout the entire season. With a mostly healthy lineup offense will not be as difficult to come by for Ottawa. Erik Karlsson chipped in 14 points in just 17 games and will help boost the Sens attack, especially on the power play.
Even with the Senators as healthy as they have been since the beginning of the season, with Spezza still on the sidelines, Montreal has an edge on offense. Sure, Karlsson is perhaps the best offensive defencman in the league but even with him playing nearly half a season, Ottawa ranked as the 4th worst team in goal scoring, while Montreal was 4th best.
On the defensive side of the puck, Montreal allowed 124 goals, right in the middle of the pack in the NHL, as the 14th least goals against. Their defense corps remained quite healthy all year until a brutal knee injury ended Alexei Emelin’s season with ten games remaining. With Andrei Markov’s usual partner on the shelf, the Habs scrambled to find the right mix again. Subban stepped up his game not just offensively but has proven to be a very effective shutdown defender, especially when paired with Josh Gorges. Veteran Francis Bouillon has been a steady influence on several youngsters he has been paired with including Raphael Diaz and likely defensive partner against the Sens in rookie Jarred Tinordi.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Montreal’s toughest defensive stretch of games would ensue shortly after Emelin was knocked out of the lineup. In five games between April 13th and 20th, the Habs allowed 25 goals, with porous defensive play being the major culprit. The Habs were able to get back on track defensively during their final three games, allowing only six total goals while winning the final two games against the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Ottawa Senators have been one of the league’s best defensive teams from start to finish this season. Allowing only 100 goals over the 48 game season was the least goals allowed in the East as only the President’s Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks fished less pucks out of their net this year.
While young defenders Karlsson and Cowen were out most of the year, veterans Sergei Gonchar, Marc Methot and Chris Phillips were forced to play major minutes and all three proved to be up to the task. The three veterans all played more than 21 minutes per night and were a big reason the Senators opponents had such a difficult time putting the puck in the net.
With everyone healthy on the Senators back end, as well as young defenders Patrick Wiercioch, Eric Gryba and Andre Benoit proving capable of helping when pressed into duty, Ottawa boasts one of the most impressive defensive groups in the NHL. Based on their consistency throughout the season, even when dealing with potentially crippling injuries, and a very impressive goals against total, the Senators look to have an edge on the defensive side of things heading into the playoffs.
In goal, Carey Price had a stellar season going through the end of March before struggling in April and then righting the ship over his final two starts. Price unfairly bore the brunt of blame for any and all struggles the Canadiens had this season. Specifically, the five game stretch where Montreal allowed an average of 5 goals per game, their defensive game was horrendous and even though Price was able to make dozens of big saves throughout that stretch, all of the blame for losing was thrown at him.
Overall, it was not Price’s best season in the NHL, as he finished with a goals against average of 2.59 and a .905 save percentage. His 21 wins tied him for seventh most in the NHL but inconsistency led to a down season in terms of stats. However, he has proven he can be a great goaltender at the most important time of the year. His last venture into the playoffs, Price was excellent in a series that went to the seventh game in overtime before the Boston Bruins eliminated them en route to winning the 2011 Stanley Cup.
What more can be said about Craig Anderson, other than he was the best goaltender in the entire league during the regular season? He only played 24 games, so a Vezina Trophy is out of reach but his 1.69 GAA and .941 save percentage are just short of what a brick wall could achieve. His playoff resume is short and although he has never won a series, his numbers are impressive.
Anderson has been the starter for two playoff series, a six game defeat while the netminder for the Colorado Avalanche in 2010 and a seven game defeat as the Sens backstopper last season. He may have come out on the losing end in both series but an identical .933 save percentage sets the bar quite high for what is to be expected once again this season.
If Price is able to have a series much like his most recent against the Bruins, when he put up 2.11 and .934 numbers, it will be tough for Anderson to outplay him. However, the edge right now has to go to the Senators goaltender based on his outstanding regular season and short yet impressive playoff history.
Special teams can often swing the balance of power in a playoff series. When two teams are so evenly matched, whoever comes away with a big power play goal can be the difference in a game. Montreal was 5th best while on the man advantage, with Subban and Markov leading the charge from the point.
Montreal will face a huge challenge in continuing their power play success as the Senators had the best penalty kill percentage this season. Led by their veteran defenders Methot, Phillips and physical youngster Gryba, Ottawa was able to kill off penalties at a rate of 88 percent.
While a man up the Senators scored on just 15.9 percent of their opportunities which left them ranked 20th in the league. Karlsson will help improve that number but without a true sniper up front to score consistently, the power play is not likely to be the difference in the series.
However, Montreal struggled mightily on the penalty kill down the stretch, ending the year just under 80 percent, which had them 23rd in the league. If this trend continues, it will open the door for Ottawa to take advantage of their opportunities while a man up.
This series should be very close, much like the season series, which was split down the middle. Each team won a game in regulation and each team won once in a shootout. The key to winning this series for Montreal will be Price being able to raise his game. Given that the Habs have more players capable of scoring goals, Price does not necessarily have to outplay Anderson but if he can bring his game near Anderson’s level, the depth of the Habs forwards will be able to outscore the Senators.
As legendary Habs Coach Toe Blake once said, predictions are for gypsies, but barring Price being severely outmatched by Anderson, the Habs should come away with a victory in a long series of close, low scoring games.
What do you think? Can the Habs oust the Sens in the first round?