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Monday, April 11, 2011

2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Canadiens-Bruins Series Preview

by Kamal Panesar

The Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins are two of the "Original Six" teams and, as such, are both steeped in history and rich traditions. A huge part of that tradition, it seems, is facing either other in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Since 1928, these two teams have met exactly 32 times in the post-season with the Canadiens holding a commanding 24-8 record.

The last time these teams met was in 2009 when the Bruins swept Montreal in four straight games. Since then, the already heated rivalry has continued to simmer to a slow boil with the intensity growing each game.

Montreal and Boston met six times this season with the Habs going 4-2-0. Those numbers don't tell the complete story, however, as this has been one of the most explosive seasons between the two clubs in recent memory.

Between the early-season fight-filled game to the one where Zdeno Chara famously knocked Max Pacioretty unconscious, these are two teams that absolutely despise each other.

So what will happen when the puck drops on this series on Thursday? Aside from the incredible hype and anticipation, here's how I see it shaping up...


Offense

The Montreal Canadiens, like last season, have a lot of trouble scoring goals. They finished the year with the 21st best goals-for at 2.6 per game, or a total of 216 goals scored.

That is the lowest goals-for total of all 16 playoff teams.

The Bruins, on the other hand, have a well balanced attack that ended the season with the fifth best goals-for, averaging 3.0 per game or 246 total goals. Only six playoff teams have scored more goals than Boston this season.

Boston has four 20-goal scorers (Michael Ryder has 18) and 12 players with 10 or more, including Blake Wheeler who was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers.

Montreal, on the other hand, has only three 20-goal scorers (Michael Cammalleri has 19) and only nine players with 10 or more. That includes both Max Pacioretty and Jeff Halpern, neither of who will be playing in Game One.

As such, Boston has a clear advantage up front meaning Montreal will have to rely on their special teams and goalie to get the job done.

Advantage: Boston.


Defense

Boston has the second lowest goals-against in the league, at 2.3 per game or 195 total goals. In addition, their goals-for/against differential of plus-51 is second best in the league.

Led by players like Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Tomas Kaberle and Johnny Boychuk, Boston possesses a big, burly, tough and skilled defensive corp. The Bruins' defenders are not the most fleet footed in the league, however, and can be exposed by a speed game.

As such, Montreal needs to get their considerable speed engaged to cycle and draw penalties.

Chara, as always, will be the key defender for Boston and should continue to log 24-plus minutes of ice time.

Montreal has the eight lowest goals-against at 2.5 per game or 209 total goals. Their goals-for/against differential is a measly plus-7, tied for third worst among playoff teams.

The Canadiens played most of the season without Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, their No.1 and No.2 defensemen. That being said, the emergence of rookie sensation P.K. Subban, combined with solid contributions from Roman Hamrlik, Hal Gill and James Wisniewski, among others, gives the Canadiens a solid, if unspectacular defensive corp.

The sum of the parts is truly better than the whole.

Subban, who has competently filled the gaping No.1 defender hole for Montreal, is going to have his work cut out for him. Along with partner Hal Gill, Subban will play against the Bruins top players all series and that means a healthy dose of Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, David Krejci and others.

The playoffs are a very different animal from the regular season and Subban is about to find out what that means for a top NHL defenseman. He will be targeted for physical punishment and will have to keep him emotions in check to avoid foolish retaliatory penalties.

Subban aside, the Canadiens also have slow-skating defenders, some of whom are lacking in the toughness department. However, Paul Mara and Brent Sopel are two players who bring a ton of toughness and grit to the table. As such, I would expect them to be given bigger roles in this series.

Montreal will need their crease clearing abilities to give Carey Price a fighting chance.

Advantage: Boston. Let's face it, as admirable a job as the Canadiens defenders have done this season, they don't have the size and toughness of the Bruins defensive unit.


Goaltending

With Carey Price in one net and Tim Thomas in the other, this should be a goaltending battle for the ages.

Both goalies are being mentioned in Vezina and Hart Trophy conversations and both have put up career numbers this season.

Thomas led the league with a 2.00 GAA and a league record .938 save percentage. In addition, he racked up a 35-11-9 record and was second in the league with nine shutouts. He is 2-1-1 against Montreal this season with a 3.22 GAA and a .907 save percentage.

Price, on the other hand, won a career-best and league leading 38 games—tied with Roberto Luongo—and had a third overall eight shutouts. He finished the season with a 2.35 GAA and a .923 save percentage while facing the second most shots in the league, at 2147.

Price has a 4-2-0 record against the Bruins this season, but allowing 13 goals in his last two starts in Boston, has a 3.66 GAA and .899 save percentage against them.

Numbers aside, Price has shown a calm, collected attitude all season no matter what is going on in front of him. As such, the Bruins need to, and will, crash and crowd Price's crease as much as possible.

If he sees the shot, he will stop it.

Thomas, on the other hand, has shown that he can be thrown off his game if the Canadiens get in his face. Moreover, his unorthodox style tends to produce juicy rebounds. So as much as the Canadiens struggle to go to the net, that is where they will have to be to score in this series.

If they pay the physical price by going to the dirty areas they should be able to capitalize.

Advantage: Montreal, although the edge is razor thin and goaltending is closer to a push in this series than anything else.


Special Teams

If Montreal's main weakness is their lack of size and physicality, the Bruins' Achilles Heel is their special teams.

Boston struggled with the 20th ranked power play at 16.2 percent and the 16th penalty kill, at 82.6 percent efficiency.

Montreal, on the other hand, is seventh in both PP (19.7 percent) and PK (84.4 percent).

The Canadiens strength is their speed and if they use it, it will back up the Bruins defenders and force them into obstruction-like penalties. Given both Coach Julien and Martin's defense-first mentalities, we could be seeing a lot of close, tightly played games.

As such, the special teams could be the deciding factor in a few games and maybe even the series.

Advantage: Montreal. Clear cut.


Key to Victory

Size versus speed. Toughness versus pure skill. That's what this series comes down to.

Subban is a marked man and, as the Canadiens No.1 defender, will get a ton of physical attention from Boston. Players like Lucic and Horton will hit him every chance they get, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the physical abuse over what could be a long series.

On the other end of the ice, the Canadiens need to chip pucks behind Chara and hit him every chance they get. Montreal must absolutely frustrate and get under Chara's skin to get him off his game. Ditto for Thomas.


Montreal Wins If...

Montreal will win if they can use their speed to cycle and draw penalties, can keep the Bruins shooters to the outside, can effectively clear the crease and can score one power play goal per game while shutting down the Bruins PP.

They also need consistent scoring from Tomas Plekanec, Michael Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. If these players slump or have trouble finding a groove this series could be over in a hurry.

Montreal must also frustrate and aggravate the Bruins while focusing on playing hockey, not getting caught up in the post-whistle shenanigans. The Habs need to be disciplined and skate away from confrontations as they only play to the Bruins' strength.

The Canadiens beat Boston four times this season by focusing on hockey and they have to remember that.

Finally, the Canadiens must absolutely win one of the first two games in Boston. If they can steal home ice advantage from the Bruins, Montreal will skate to victory.


Boston Wins If...

The key for Boston will be to lean on Montreal physically while staying out of the penalty box. The Bs have better 5-on-5 scoring and will need to dominate this facet of the game to win the series.

Boston wins if they can be physical without taking penalties, if they can crash and crowd Price's crease, if they can tire Subban with constant physical pressure and if they stick to playing hockey while avoiding the goonery.

The Bruins showed in their last game that they have the ability to beat Montreal without gooning it up. A tough, physical game that is based in skill, not thuggery, will capture the series for Boston.


Outcome

I don't see a blowout either way. There will be no four-game sweep in this series.

That being said, if Montreal can't win one of the first two games, I see the Bruins taking this in six. If, however, the Canadiens can steal a game in Boston, they will plant a seed of doubt in the Bruins' minds and will seal the deal.

Ultimately, while the Canadiens have the tools to get the job done, Boston showed their ability to play and beat Montreal with tough but disciplined hockey last game. As such, I expect they will bring the same style to the table while Montreal will once again struggle with the plague of costly, lazy penalties and pop-gun offense.

Carey Price will steal a game or two in this series, but the Habs won't manage much more.

Prediction: Boston in six games.

---
Kamal is a freelance Habs writer, Senior Writer/Editor-in-Chief of HabsAddict.com, Montreal Canadiens Blogger on Hockeybuzz.com and Habs writer on TheFranchise.ca. Kamal is also a weekly contributor to the Sunday Shinny on The Team 990 (AM 990) every Sunday from 8 - 9 AM. Listen live at http://www.team990.com/

4 comments:

Great Article as usual.

The facts are all there and you're assessments about offense, defense, goaltending, specialty teams and keys to victory are all, bang on. It's only your prediction that is wrong.

In the playoffs, everything starts all over. The season games don't count anymore. Specialty teams play becomes even more important and wins series for teams. The Bruins will continue to be terrible in these areas. The Habs were lacking any intensity in their last meeting with the Bruins so forget that game. The rest of the season, the Habs showed just how much more skilled and speedy they are than the Bruins. This will be on full display in this round 1 match up. The Bruins will not be able to be effective with their goon tacts so their physicality will be useless in this series as the Habs are sure to not take the bait. The Habs have another gear in the playoffs that I don't believe the Bruins possess. The biggest factor for me is revenge. This is what the Habs will use as motivation against the Bruins. What better way to get their revenge for the Chara's Hit on teammate, Max Pacioretty than by beating the Bruins badly in this series and knocking them out of the playoffs.
I expect the Habs to take it so intensely to the Bruins that there will be no doubt they want to sweep them out of the Playoffs in four games but five or six will due.
The bruins are done. I am predicting the Habs in five games.

Regards,
Ref Whistle

Good stuff my friend, as always, and I like the prediction!

I really see this as a series that could go either way. You are 100% right about season stats meaning nothing in the post-season.

It's a different season and everyone starts at zero. Also, your point about special teams is also bang on...they become MUCH more important in the playoffs.

The Canadiens have the tools to beat the Bruins, but when you see them taking horribly lazy penalties in the last game of the season, what makes you think they'll now change?

The Habs need to be disciplined to avoid giving the Bruins any undue momentum, and I'm not convinced they can do it.

Also, I think the Bs have a lot of confidence in their abilities right now and, based on their last game against Montreal, feel they can beat the Habs.

If they play like they did last game, we won't be seeing 7-0 blastings but, imo, we will see a Bruins victory.

Again, I think this series could go either way but give the edge, however slight, to the Bs.

Let hope the Habs prove me wrong!

I'll echo RW in thanking you for the breakdown and in suggesting that you not put too much stock in the 7-0 blow-out.

The post Patches-broken-neck slump is over. All pistons are firing. Especially AK-Pleks-Cam's. The second line will also work some magic with Darche's butt in Thomas face. Gomez, yes Gomez, is a proven playoff performer and we have seen glimpses of what is to come from him and Gio these past few games.

Look for Moen and White to keep the Bruin's tough guys honest, and DD and Poo to provide secondary scoring.

Like you said, if the Habs win game 1 or 2 in Boston, the chances look good. I'm betting they will.

Hi patience is a virtue, and thanks for your comment!

Personally, I don't think the 7-0 blowout is an indication of the Canadiens abilities as it is the Bs ability to play a clean, but tough game.

I expect Montreal to play well and give Boston a serious challenge. I just think too many things have to go right for the Habs to win.

While there is no question that AK-Plek-Cammy have started going again, they need to bring it consistently. That and Cammalleri absolutley must be in the top thee in scoring for EITHER team, in order for Montreal to win.

It could and might happen, but I just feel doubtful. Hey, I hope the Habs prove me wrong!

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