MONTREAL – If the Montreal Canadiens are to repeat last year’s trip to the Eastern Conference final, first they’ll need to use their speed, teamwork and special teams to get past arch-rival Boston in the first round.
In their second season under defence-oriented coach Jacques Martin, the Canadiens finished sixth in the conference with a 44-30-8 record for 96 points—eight more and two spots higher than last year. Boston went 46-25-11 for 103 points to earn the third overall seed.
Montreal went 4-2 against the Bruins but did lose 8-6 and 7-0 in their last two trips to Boston.
Montreal brings a smaller than average team that uses quick puck movement, tight checking and strong special teams to win. But they could struggle against a bigger, more physical Bruins team that has more scoring depth.
Mostly, Montreal’s chances of advancing rest with goaltender Carey Price, who has had a breakthrough campaign after losing the starting job to the since-departed Jaroslav Halak last season.
Price was a workhorse, playing 72 games and tying Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo with a league-high 38 wins. Boston’s Tim Thomas had Vezina Trophy numbers this season but he has struggled against Montreal.
Price had a 3.46 goals-against average against Boston while Thomas posted a 3.22 GAA versus the Canadiens.
Montreal has one of the better defence corps in the East, led by the pair of towering stay-at-home veteran Hal Gill and flashy rookie P.K. Subban, who had 14 goals. Veteran Roman Hamrlik and shooter James Wisniewski make another strong two-way pair while Brent Sopel and Jaroslav Spacek are more defence-minded.
Defence was a concern when anchorman Andrei Markov and solid Josh Gorges were lost for the season with knee injuries. But Wisniewski has made up for some of Markov’s scoring and Sopel can make up for Gorges’ shot-blocking skill.
The Bruins answer with hulking Zdeno Chara and late-season acquisition Tomas Kaberle, who has often played his best against Montreal.
The Canadiens are also without winger Max Pacioretty indefinitely with a neck injury and checking forward Jeff Halpern is doubtful for the start the series with an undisclosed ailment.
Pacioretty’s injury gutted one of the top lines with centre Scott Gomez and team goal-scoring leader Brian Gionta, but the two former New Jersey Devils settled in when journeyman Mathieu Darche moved into left wing to dig for pucks and crowd the net. Gomez had the worst of his 11 NHL seasons with only 38 points but has looked better of late.
Tomas Plekanec, Montreal’s goal-scoring leader, has been in a scoring drought but winger Michael Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn have started to produce. Cammalleri caught fire with 13 goals in 19 games in last year’s postseason.
Rookie Lars Eller doesn’t get many points but has been a solid two-way centre, while Tom Pyatt doesn’t score but has speed on left wing and Travis Moen brings size and some grit to the checking unit.
On the fourth line, rookie centre David Desharnais is small and not terribly fast but is a fine playmaker. Enigmatic winger Benoit Pouliot, who hasn’t scored in 24 games, provides the speed, white low-scoring Ryan White brings some muscle to the right side.
The big line for Boston against Montreal was centre David Krejci’s unit with Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, who combined for seven goals and 16 assists. Centre Patrice Bergeron had seven points in six games against the Canadiens.
Where the Canadiens hold an advantage is on special teams, where their power play was ranked seventh overall with a 19.7 per cent success rate. Boston was 20th overall at 16.2 per cent. A major key for Montreal was Subban, who had a team-high nine power-play goals.
Montreal boasted the NHL’s seventh-best penalty-killing unit at 84.4 per cent while Boston was ranked 16th at 82.6 per cent. Plekanec’s ability to prevent opponents from setting up and Gill’s shot-blocking ability anchor the unit although the Canadiens gave opponents a league-high 327 power-play chances.