Regular season recaps
Dec. 20:Canadiens 4, Senators 1
Jan. 15:Senators 5, Canadiens 1
Feb. 18:Senators 4, Canadiens 2
Mar. 12:Senators 5, Canadiens 2
Canadiens: LW Max Pacioretty (head, day-to-day); D Tom Gilbert (upper body, day-to-day)
Senators: LW Matt Puempel (lower body, day-to-day); D Chris Phillips (undisclosed, IR); G Robin Lehner (concussion, IR)
Keys to a Canadiens victory
Let’s just get it out of the way: Montreal is not a one-man team, but the Canadiens will go only as far as Carey Price takes them. The presumptive MVP tilts the ice in a way no other player does. He led the league in goals-against average (1.96), save percentage (.933) and wins (44), despite playing behind a team that spent too much time on its heels defensively. Price can slam the door shut at any time (see: 2014 Winter Olympics). The key here could be his health. Injuries forced Price to watch from the press box as the Habs were eliminated in 2013 and ’14. They don’t want to press their luck a third time. Outside of goaltending, Montreal’s hopes rely on its speed. The Canadiens boast a quick group of skilled forwards—young Alex Galchenyuk could be a difference maker here—and an experienced corps of blueliners who are capable of moving the puck quickly in transition. P.K. Subban sets the tone with his physical play and skating. Few players dominate possession at even-strength the way he can. Trade deadline addition Jeff Petry could make an impact as well. A terrific skater and savvy playmaker, he’s been a nice fit alongside the bruising Alexei Emelin. Montreal has been strong on the penalty kill this season, ranking seventh at 83.7%, but not so good with the man-advantage. The power play has been a disaster for almost two full seasons, and looks even worse without the finishing touch of injured leading scorer Max Pacioretty. Still, the Canadiens found a way last spring, especially in the conference finals against the Rangers, so the unit could surprise. Finally, Montreal needs to capitalize on the Senators’ lack of playoff experience (less than 300 total games). When the chance comes to put their boot on Ottawa’s throat, Montreal has to take it.
Keys to a Senators victory
Ottawa isn't simply the hottest team in hockey, it’s also the one that’s been playing with postseason-level desperation for the past month. That 21-3-3 run wasn't smoke and mirrors. The Senators relied on four complete lines playing smart hockey, a well-balanced defense led by Norris Trophy favorite Erik Karlsson and an unlikely hero in goalie Andrew Hammond, whose 20-1-2 record, 1.79 goals-against average and .941 save percentage make him the NHL’s best goaltender down the stretch. The Hamburglar lacks experience, but he plays with a level of poise that sets the tone for his teammates. He also went 10-0-2 on the road, which suggests home ice might not be an advantage for the Habs. Up front, Ottawa will rely on its depth to make up for the fact that it lacks a game-breaking star. The Senators ranked ninth in goals per game (2.83) while the Canadiens were 20th (2.61). Ottawa had five 20-goal scorers, including Calder Trophy dark horse Mark Stone, who scored eight goals in his final nine games and tied for the league lead in takeaways. Mika Zibanejad scored a career-high 20 goals this season while playing on the second line. He has a chance to be a difference maker in this series, as does Bobby “I suck” Ryan, who’ll be trying to rebound from a down season that saw him score just 18. If the series is as physical as expected, the Senators’ resurgent penalty kill could make a difference. Although it ranked 11th this season, it allowed just six goals in the last 16 games.
I understand that going with Ottawa here means picking against against Carey Price. Even after the Senators beat him twice this season, bloodying his nose to the tune of a 3.03 goals-against average and an .887 save percentage, that’s still a tough call to justify. But I’m going with my gut here and saying that Ottawa has just enough magic left to pull off this first-round upset. Senators in six.
Canadiens 4, Senators 3
Canadiens 3, Senators 2 (OT)
Canadiens 2, Senators 1 (OT)
Senators 1, Canadiens 0
Senators 5, Canadiens 1
Canadiens 2, Lightning 0