The Bruins seem to be the popular pick to win their first-round series against the Canadiens, which is set to begin Thursday night at TD Garden. On paper, one could see why the B’s might hold the advantage. While the Habs held the 2-4-0 advantage in the season series, many are tossing that mark aside. After all, it came in the regular season, and this is the playoffs.
If that’s the logic that people want to use, they must also throw out every other regular-season number, such as the B’s plus-51 goal differential this season, or their 2.89 goals per game. The truth of the matter is that everything must be taken into consideration, and that most certainly includes the regular season. Even though the regular season has been an inconsistent barometer in the past, it’s the most recent thing that’s happened, and it’s taught us plenty.
It remains to be seen whether a Bruins victory in this series will come as easily as some think, or whether the Habs can upset the No. 3 seed. The Canadiens are certainly an opponent worth fearing, and this series could go either way in six or seven games.
To break it down further, here’s a look at which team holds the edge at each position:
The Bruins outscored the Habs, 22-20, in the season series, though four of the six meetings between the teams were decided by two or more goals. The biggest examples of not-so-close games between the B’s and Habs came in their last two meetings, as the Canadiens sunk the B’s, 4-1, on March 8, while the B’s were winners of a 7-0 blowout on March 24.
The Habs’ biggest fear may be Milan Lucic, based on both his 30-goal regular season and his nine points in each of the last two postseasons. He had nine points (4 G, 5 A) against Montreal this season.
Michael Cammalleri was a point-a-game player for the Habs in the postseason last year (16 G, 13 A in 19 games). He played in just 67 games this season (due mainly to a separated shoulder), but was able to finish second on the Canadiens with 47 points. His line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn was broken up at times during the season, but could be big in the playoffs. Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez have been able to elevate Mathie Darche’s play as well, as the 34-year-old Darche had four points in his last four games.
The Bruins’ leader in points in the 2010 playoffs was Dennis Wideman (12), with Patrice Bergeron finishing with 11. One can only wonder whether the Bruins’ fate would have been different last season had David Krejci (eight points through the playoffs’ first nine games) not gone down with a dislocated wrist in Game 3 against the Flyers.
One of the most critical parts of the Bruins’ operation is Nathan Horton, who has not played a game of playoff hockey since the Ottawa 67’s eliminated the Oshawa Generals back in 2003. Given that he spent the first six seasons of his career in Florida, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this will be his first trip to the postseason in the NHL career. His days of watching the playoffs on TV are over, and it now remains to be seen what he can do after finishing the season with six goals over his last 10 games. (For what it’s worth, he had 15 points in 13 games for the Generals back in 2003.)
Ultimately, this is a matter of strength (Boston) vs. speed (Montreal). When the games tighten up in the playoffs, strength should win out, but it’s a matter of consistency for the Bruins. If top-line players start disappearing for the Bruins (Horton, Lucic and Krejci all had streaks of 10 or more games without a goal this season), it could be a problem. If the Lucic – Krejci – Horton line plays at its highest level, the Habs might not have an answer.
Zdeno Chara deserves to win the Norris Trophy, but that’s not saying he necessarily will. Plus-minus is a pretty overrated statistic, but hockey’s lack of popular sabermetrics leaves it as the primary measuring stick for success among defenseman. Chara ended up leading the league with a plus-33, while Adam McQuaid finished eighth with a plus-28.
Maybe Tomas Kaberle will pick it up in the playoffs, but while he hasn’t been detrimental in many cases, he certainly hasn’t been worth a first-round pick and Joe Colborne. He is not a good skater, but while his passing hasn’t yielded much (more on that in the special teams section), it is a sight to see.
The B’s will have a healthy Dennis Seidenberg after having nothing of the sort in the postseason a year ago. Seidenberg played a career-high 81 games but was inconsistent. His seven goals, 32 points and 23:33 average time on ice were also career-bests.
The Habs, meanwhile, dealt with injuries on their blue-line during the season, but they shouldn’t be overlooked. World-class pain-in-the-butt P.K. Subban is one of the best things to happen to this rivalry in a long time. He clearly relishes getting on the B’s nerves, and it has worked to get them off their games at times. The B’s will have to avoid Subban’s words like Brad Marchand will have to avoid his hip-checks. Though he finished the season with a minus-8 rating, Subban finished sixth on the Habs with 38 points this season.
James Wisniewski was a nice-pickup for the Habs. He was a minus-4 in three games against the Bruins, but he was instrumental in the Canadiens’ 3-2 come-from-behind overtime win on Jan. 8. The former Islander drew the Michael Ryder trip that led to Scott Gomez’ power-play goal at 17:38, and he assisted Gionta’s game-tying goal with 48 seconds remaining. Wisniewski had seven goals in 43 games for the Habs this season after totaling three with the Islanders through 32 contests.
This area's pretty clear. The B’s have the best in the business and that plus-51 goal differential is telling.
There’s no doubt that Tim Thomas was the best goaltender in the NHL this season. He led the league in both goals against average (2.00) and save percentage (.938, the best in the history of the statistic), and if he can play the way he did in October (0.50 GAA, .984 save percentage) in this series, the Bruins will be unbeatable. That isn’t a give though, and if you recall the look we took at Vezina winners in the playoffs, having the regular season’s best goaltender does not guarantee playoff success.
On the other side, Carey Price was an absolute workhorse for the Canadiens. The 23-year-old played in 72 games (Thomas played in 57), with Price posting a 2.35 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. For a frame of reference, Thomas’ save percentage was higher than .923 in every month expect for February. The numbers are in Thomas’ favor by a long-shot, but the Habs could lean on Price.
One thing that applies to both goaltenders is reason to worry in road games this series. Thomas was 0-1-1 with seven goals allowed and a .916 save percentage in two starts at the Bell Centre this season. Similarly, the Garden was Price’s worst nightmare. In three games in Boston this season, Price was 1-2-0 with a 5. 11 GAA and and a .863 save percentage. Thomas was 2-0-0 a 3.00 GAA against the Habs at TD Garden, while Price was a 3-0-0 with a 2.00 GAA against the B’s at the Bell Centre.
At the end of the day, the Bruins have the better goalie, but both netminders have had their struggles on their opponents’ ice of taking over a series. What’s most important (and perhaps overlooked) is that they are both among the best netminders in the NHL and either one is capable of taking over a series. Don't be surpsrised if Thomas or Price does.
This one is a no-brainer, and one that could play a big role. Special teams play is never about the big picture, and is more of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately deal. For that reason, the Bruins have every reason to be very concerned about their power play. They had just one power-play goal over the final seven games of the season, and they had just one or zero power plays in three of those games.
It’s no secret that the Kaberle addition did not yield the desired results for the power play. Since Kaberle made his Bruins debut on Feb. 18, the B’s had just seven power play goals in 67 opportunities, good for a lousy 10.4 percentage. It ultimately should fall far less on Kaberle and more on the forwards who aren’t finishing in front of the net.
The Canadiens finished seventh in the league in both power play percentage and penalty kill percentage. Again, looking at recent results is more telling than the big picture, so looking at the Hab’s final seven games since their last meeting with the Bruins, the Canadiens have gone 6-for-22 on the power play and have killed off 22 of 23 penalties.
The biggest weapon in this series on the penalty kill is Brad Marchand. He finished tied for third in the NHL with five shorthanded goals, while Patrice Bergeron and Rich Peverley each had two this season (one of Peverley's came while he was a a member of the Thrashers). Gionta is the only Habs player with multiple shorthanded goals, as he had two.
The idea that Claude Julien needs to get the Bruins past the second round to keep his job is an interesting one, and one with which I do not agree. Maybe he is Marty Schottenheimer, and he does have the talent to get the Bruins past the second round, but if the players can’t get motivated to play at their highest level in the playoffs, that’s just as big a reflection on the roster as it is on the coach.
Jacques Martin is another guy who has had no trouble getting to the playoffs (years with the Panthers don’t count for obvious reasons), but would like to prove he can take a team to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Habs were knocked out by the Flyers in five games in the Conference Finals last season. Martin is also working with a weaker roster than Julien.
This is a much harder series to predict than some think. On paper, the Bruins clearly are the better team. They're stronger and arguably have the three most important players in this series. Still, they went 2-3-1 against the rival Canadiens this season and let Montreal dictate their style of play very early on. The Bruins can't just steam-roll past the Habs, and if they think they can, they might get caught looking to the second round.
The worst thing about this matchup is that the B's would probably have a much easier time with higher seeds. If they can get past the Canadiens, I honestly believe they can get to the Stanley Cup Finals. First thing's first, though, and it won't be easy to predict a B's victory until they show they can win in Montreal. The B's are without question one of the toughest teams to play against in the league, but aside from absolutely quitting in the 7-0 game, the Canadiens have shown time and time again that unlike other teams, they're not afraid of them.
PREDICTION: Canadiens in six