MONTREAL – Daniel Alfredsson has been a Canadiens-killer since he began his career as an Ottawa Senator in 1995, but he has never played Montreal in the playoffs.
The 40-year-old will finally get that chance when the Senators and Canadiens face off for the first time in the post-season on Thursday night in the opening game of their best-of-seven NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final at the Bell Centre.
“It’s going to be a great series because of the cities being so close to each other,” Alfredsson said Wednesday. “Ottawa’s a pretty new franchise compared to Montreal (founded in 1909).
“And before we had the team, people were either Toronto or Montreal fans, so we have a lot of Montreal fans in Ottawa and we’re converting them one step at a time. Winning this series would probably go a long way to helping that.”
A long, tight series of one-goal games is expected from the two quick-skating teams.
With eight players with 10 or more goals in the 48-game regular season, the Canadiens bring more scoring depth and one of the league’s top power plays. Ottawa counters with the NHL’s best penalty killing, thorough defensive play and a lot more size on the back end.
And they have 40-year-old Alfredsson, who has amassed 103 points in 85 career games against the Canadiens.
“He’s good and very smart on the ice,” said Montreal winger Michael Ryder, whose line with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta will likely be shadowing the Senators’ captain. “But I think if we play the way we can and get into the offensive zone and use that to our advantage we’ll be fine.
“But you’ve got to watch him when he’s out there.”
There has never been a heated rivalry between the clubs, largely because they had not met in the post-season since Ottawa joined as an expansion team for the 1992-93, which was the year Montreal won the last of its record 24 Stanley Cups.
That is likely to change now that they are playing for keeps.
“Both teams are looking at doing whatever it takes to win games,” said Alfredsson. “Usually, in a playoff series, incidents happen and rivalries get created because of it.
“I don’t think we’re looking to create a rivalry. We’re looking to win a series and the rivalry will come with that.”
Goaltending will be key.
Montreal’s Carey Price was having a dominant season until he and the team fell apart for a two-week stretch in April, but he rebounded with two decent outings in the final week and says he feels ready for the playoffs. In his last post-season in 2011, he excelled in a seven-game first round against the eventual Cup winner Boston.
Ottawa respond with Craig Anderson, who posted a stellar 1.69 goals-against average and .941 save percentage this season but missed 20 games with an injury.
Another match-up to watch is the play of each team’s young, hotshot defencemen, P.K. Subban for Montreal and 2012 Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson for the Senators.
Subban was second in team scoring with 38 points. Karlsson may have had that many or more had he not suffered a deep skate cut on Feb. 13. He returned for the final three games of the regular season.
Still another angle involves the teams’ tough guys—Ottawa’s Chris Neil and Montreal’s Brandon Prust—who will each be using the body and agitating opponents. They fought each other during last year’s playoffs when Prust was with the New York Rangers.
“That’s his job, to be physical, and he’s one of the better ones at it in the league,” Prust said of Neil.
“We’re similar players,” said Neil. “I look forward to the challenge, but it’s right up my alley, that style of game.
“Over a seven-game series, you want to play hard against guys who play a lot of minutes. It’s not just me. It’s a team effort. If Subban’s playing 30 minutes for them, we want to make it a hard 30 minutes. Same with (Andrei) Markov. They’ll do the same with some of our guys.”
Prust has been skating on Montreal’s fourth line with Ryan White and Travis Moen, but it is those grinding units that often play key roles in the post-season. Chicago checker Bryan Bickell scored the overtime goal in Chicago’s series-opening win over Minnesota on Tuesday night.
“Maybe little things in the game that your fourth liners do every night get magnified a little more,” said White. “It’s a new season.
“Look at the heroes (Tuesday) night. It wasn’t Johnny Toews or Patty Kane, it was Bickell. It’s not a matter of who gets the goals. It’s stepping up and helping your team win. The little things of getting the puck out, or winning draws or putting your body on the line for your teammates might go unnoticed during the season but they get magnified in the playoffs.”
It was feared that White, who was in trouble with coach Michel Therrien early in the season for ill-timed penalties, may have played his last game when he was got a five-game suspension late in the season for a hit to the head. But he dressed for the final game in Toronto and looks to be a playoff starter.
The first job for Ottawa will be skating with the smaller, but skilled Canadiens.
“Montreal is all about speed and we have to be able to match that,” said coach Paul MacLean. “If you can’t catch it, you can’t really hit it. So we have to make sure we’re skating.”
MacLean confirmed that defenceman Chris Phillips and forward Milan Michalek, who had some bumps and bruises, will be ready to play.