MONTREAL – The Boston Bruins would do well to stay out of the penalty box when they face the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL playoffs.
One clear advantage Montreal will hold over the Bruins when their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series begins on Thursday night is special teams.
The Canadiens had the league’s top power play this season with a 24.2 per cent success rate, while Boston was 16th among the 30 teams at 17.6 per cent.
In penalty killing, Montreal struggled for most of the season, but finished strong to place 15th with an 82.5 per cent kill rate. The Bruins, meanwhile, we were 28th at 78.6 per cent.
The best power play against the third-worst PK? No wonder 11 of Montreal’s league-leading 90 power-play goals this season were scored against Boston, a team they beat eight times in as many meetings.
“For Boston, that’s probably the first thing they’ll talk about – not taking penalties against us,” Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said this week. “Now it’s up to us to use our speed and do the things that created those penalties.”
It is the second year in a row that the Canadiens have had the top power play, but their 22.8 per cent scoring rate last season still saw them finish 10th in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoffs.
This season, they finished first in the conference and led the NHL in scoring with 262 goals, largely due to better play at even strength. Last year, they were minus-28 as a team while this time, they were plus-11 and cut their goals-against overall by 34.
The surprising part of their repeat as power-play leaders was that last summer they lost Sheldon Souray, their top gun on the point, to Edmonton as a free agent. Souray had used his cannon shot to score 19 goals with the man advantage.
That prompted a major retooling that left them with an even better power play this season.
Mark Streit, who was on the second unit a year ago, moved into Souray’s spot, although he scored only seven on the power play.
“Mark’s shot doesn’t have the same impact as Shelly’s as far as (defenders) trying to take away his shot, but it’s still a pretty good shot,” said Canadiens forward Christopher Higgins. “We create a lot of offence off it.
“He’s able to get it off quick, he’s very accurate and we have guys around the net willing to pick up the rebound goals. It’s been a big improvement over last year.”
A year ago, the first unit had Souray with Andrei Markov on the points, with Saku Koivu, Higgins and usually Michael Ryder up front, but the Koivu line became the second unit this year as the Alex Kovalev-Tomas Plekanec-Andrei Kostitsyn trio got most of the ice time.
Kovalev led with 17 power-play goals while Plekanec and Kostitsyn each had 12. Higgins led the second wave, also with 12.
And the emphasis shifted from getting the puck to Souray and then crowding the net for rebounds, to handing it to Kovalev, usually on the right side of the ice, and using the entire zone to make plays.
Many came as in the past off point shots, but Kovalev was also deadly either shooting from a close angle or moving into the middle. There was also the diagonal pass from Markov on the left point to Kovalev, or the cross-ice, back-door play to Markov moving in from the point.
Plekanec and Kostitsyn, both skilled passers and shooters, also found ways to create goals on their own.
The second unit attacked the net more and was also effective.
“It’s the same units as last year, it’s just that one gets a little more (ice) time this year,” added Higgins. “But they both contributed last year and this year they’re doing the same.
“We’ve been No. 1 the last two years. It’s a very simple power play. We’re not trying to be too fancy. We have guys who stay in front and get dirty goals and guys who make nice passes across the ice. It’s tough to defend against.”
The Canadiens outscored Boston 39-16 this season, but expect a stiffer challenge from their old Original Six rival in the post-season.
They remember that in 2004, they were the underdog and Boston was the top seed when they upset the Bruins in seven games in the first round. Montreal’s coach at the time was Claude Julien, who is now behind the Boston bench.
“When you’re the underdog, it’s always good because you’ve got less pressure,” said defenceman Francis Bouillon. “We’ve got to put aside the season we had against Boston.
“They’ve got a great team. They’ll try to change some things, so we’ll have to be ready.”
For a second straight day, the Canadiens looked loose in a one-hour practice at the Bell Centre with lots of skating, shooting and crisp passing.
They have one more skate Wednesday afternoon before the series begins the following night and 10 Canadiens and 11 Bruins get their first taste of NHL playoff action.
“I’m very excited,” said forward Tom Kostopoulos, who is in his sixth NHL season but has never played in the post-season. “I’ve watched too many NHL playoff games on TV when I’ve been dying to be there.
“We’re all excited, but I’m at the top of the list for excitement for that first game.”
The Bruins are not due in town until Wednesday night.
Boston is holding out hope that centre Patrice Bergeron, out since October 27 with a concussion, will be able to return at some point during the series, although likely not the opener. He has started to skate, but reports said he looked a little tentative.
Their top scorer Marc Savard may play despite a sore back suffered from a check by Montreal’s Steve Begin three weeks ago.
The Canadiens may be without captain Koivu, who missed practice, with a fractured bone in a foot.
Bouillon skated with a guard on his injured left ankle, but didn’t look strong.
Defenceman Mike Komisarek (hip) and Ryder (knee) looked as though they should be ready.