First-round preview: Habs-Sens
It's not quite the Original Six matchup fans in Montreal and Toronto were dreaming of happening for the first time in 34 years, but it's history, nonetheless. The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators meet in the postseason for the first time in modern NHL history, which perhaps will spur on a rivalry between the two clubs that really hasn't existed since the Sens re-entered the league in 1992-93. Although the Battle of Ontario between the Maple Leafs and Senators was fueled by four playoff series between 1999 and 2004, the Habs and Senators have shared a division but never a playoff series. So while the two cities are just a 90-minute drive apart, there has never really been bad blood between the franchises. That should change now.
1. Forget the seeding
This is an evenly-matched series, so you can forget the fact that Montreal is a No. 2 seed and Ottawa No. 7. The two teams split the season series, each team winning once in regulation and once in a shootout, and the reality is, had the Senators had not lost key players to injury for most of the season, they would have been challenging the Habs for the division lead. With the Senators getting the likes of Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen back recently, they're getting healthy just in time for the playoffs, which is a scary thought (although No. 1 center Jason Spezza remains out).
2. The goalies will rock
Both teams are rock-solid in net. Ottawa's Craig Anderson leads all netminders with a 1.69 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, although he was limited to 24 games because of injury. Montreal's Carey Price was a workhorse while appearing in 39 games. His numbers took a dive late in the season after hitting a slump along with his team, but he was solid in winning his last start at Winnipeg. Is Price all the way back? We'll soon find out.
3. Jack Adams knows these guys
Paul MacLean should be a shoe-in to win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year after keeping his squad playoff-bound despite an injury list that would have wiped out most teams: losing his top defenseman Karlsson, top-four blueliner Cowen and No. 1 center Spezza for most of the season, and top goalie Anderson and top-line winger Milan Michalek for a chunk of time. Truly an amazing coaching job by MacLean, who impressed NHL management types all season. Montreal's man behind the bench is no slouch, either. Michel Therrien deserves to be in the Jack Adams mix after guiding the Habs from last in the East a year ago to a Northeast Division title. Therrien has changed the culture with his players by demanding accountability. He gets his first taste of playoff action since the 2008 Stanley Cup finals, when he felt just short with a young Pittsburgh Penguins team.
4. Battle of the big-time blueliners
Both clubs are deep on defense and sport high-end difference-makers at the top. Karlsson looks like he hasn't missed a step at all since returning last week from what was supposed to be a season-ending torn Achilles. Last year's Norris Trophy winner is incredibly dangerous with the puck, a super passer, a great shooter and a player whose vision in his own end makes outlet passes possible when it didn't seem like there was a passing lane. Joined by the likes of veteran Sergei Gonchar, Cowen and veteran Chris Phillips, the Sens' blue-line corps is the strength of the team. The Habs counter with P.K. Subban, a favorite of many to win the Norris Trophy this season. Like Karlsson, Subban makes it all happen at both ends of the ice. Veteran Andrei Markov has enjoyed a healthy and productive season, which is no small factor in Montreal's surprising season. The dependable Josh Gorges, the silky smooth-passing Raphael Diaz and cagey veteran Francis Bouillon are among other important members of the Habs blue-line corps, which has played well most of the season.
5. Habs' rebound at the right time The Canadiens had their fans in near-panic mode late in the regular season when they fell apart after clinching a playoff spot and went on a skid, getting clobbered night in and night out for two week or so. But wins in Winnipeg and Toronto to close out the regular season -- which helped clinch the Northeast Division -- have calmed some of those nerves, particularly a dominating 4-1 win at the Air Canada Centre over the Maple Leafs, which resembled the Habs team we had seen most of the season.
If Habs fans who wanted no part of the Maple Leafs were relieved to get Ottawa instead, they shouldn't have been. The Senators will give the Canadiens all they can handle, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if Ottawa won the series. But I'll stick with the team that has home-ice advantage. Canadiens in 7
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