The question floating around right now is one with no simple answer - Who's going to win the Stanley Cup, and will that team be the Montreal Canadiens? The Canadiens will likely close out the season on a winning note, and even more likely end up standing second in the Eastern Conference, possibly first. It's been several years since the Habs have been on a roll like this, so I don't expect that natural high to wear off anytime soon. They may have secured their post-season trial, but there is no time to stop and breathe until the regular season is over. Look to them to rely heavily on their power play opportunities when they get them.
If the current standings keep pace, Montreal can look to either play the first round of the playoffs against either Philadelphia or Boston (and technically, Toronto still has a slim shot). The Canadiens have the best chance of succeeding against the Flyers. The combination of having home-ice advantage and Daniel Briere means the Habs fan will be all over him and the entire team. We've all seen how the fans have reacted now during the regular season. Playoffs would be an outrage. And the Philadelphia Flyers sure love to take penalties when they get under too much pressure. The biggest challenge against the Flyers would be Martin Biron.
Then there is the Boston Bruins. The Bruins would be the most thrilling of any matchups, for who doesn't like a classic Original Six battle? That makes Boston one of the most experienced against the Canadiens when it comes to playoffs. Same case as Philadelphia, the excessive (and often unnecessary) penalties they take will be a major harm against the team. Auld and Thomas both tend to be shaky in net, and neither have much playoff experiences in them. Look out for Lucic of the Bruins to stir up some trouble, and above all for Chara in general. The other aspect that would be in favour of the Habs is that Boston's penalty kill currently ranks 28th (March 13, 2008).
Carey Price is about as calm as they can get. After his recent shutout against the New Jersey Devils, it was noted that Price was the first rookie Habs goalie to record a shutout when facing 35 or more shots since Ken Dryden. There is always tremendous pressure on any rookie, and playing for the Montreal Canadiens gives Price the most anyone can experience. But he toughs it out. If he has a bad game (who doesn’t?) he doesn't falter or dwell for long, keeping his main train of thought on the next game at task. It was interesting that at the beginning of the year, most of the hockey experts predicted the Canadiens to place 13th or 14th in the Eastern Conference, and that Price wouldn't make the team full time. It's clear that exactly the opposite is what's happening. There is no doubt in my mind that if the Habs can get past the first round of the playoffs (which they should), this kid is going to be able to get his playoff confidence he needs.
Trading Cristobal Huet was a shock at first, but now it's clear why it happened. Sure he may have a small amount of playoff experience, but he also had more moments of flaws and was shaky off and on all season. No longer is he the guy who you could expect to rely on for getting several wins in a row. We all know what Halak is capable of. Consider last season, when he almost got the Habs into the post-season. So if for some reason Price is having troubles, and he absolutely has to be pulled, their backup isn't a bad choice, either.
Call me crazy and a biased Habs fan, but I've believed in this team being a Stanley Cup contender from the beginning. Anyone could have seen it coming - the talented rookies being held in the minors until just the right time, the coaching staff all being previous players with the team, Bob Gainey not in a panic and keeping the good players, and recently building the team around the playoffs. The signs of being potential Stanley Cup Champs are starting to show. That recent victorious matchup against the Devils helped the Canadiens win the series against them this year - something they haven't done since the 1992-93 season - the last time they won the Cup. The Habs can almost breath a sigh of relief as it has been rare for them to be high up in the standings instead of fighting to get into the playoffs and beating out the top league teams. Now karma has come around and is giving them the opportunity to be one of those top teams themselves.
Getting past the quarter finals will be their biggest challenge since those who just squeezed into the playoffs are going to be hungry for wins. The underdogs are usually the hardest to face. But the Canadiens typically are the underdogs, so it gives them the advantage of knowing what they'll be facing. The only real concern for the Habs is that they have to kill the nerves and anxiety they will feel, especially when playing at home. The jam-packed Bell Centre will either be filled with a deafening cheer or a house full of boo-birds. The entire team then will have to try block them out since it can be a major distraction. Injuries always seem to be a curse for the Habs in the playoffs. If they ever lost someone like Kovalev or Plekanec, getting the greatly needed victories will be difficult.
A key factor will be to keep the lines the way they stand now. Just because they will be in the playoffs doesn't mean they should mix the lineups for something that 'looks' better. The Canadiens always have issues against the Ottawa Senators, so if they end up playing them for a playoff series it may be the end of the line. If they make it into the Stanley Cup finals, facing the West will be even more challenging than all of their Eastern opponents combined, especially if they ended up playing their follow Original Six team of the Detroit Red Wings. Then again, playing against Detroit would be the most exciting, especially for those who were too young or not born when it was just the Original Six.
No matter who the Habs play, no matter where, and no matter how far they make it into the post-season, the Habs fans of the world will continue to feel proud even after season's end. Their ability to succeed can only be determined by the Canadiens themselves. Stanley Cup, or no Stanley Cup for the Habs?? We'll just have to pray and watch, and we'll find out soon enough.
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