Preview and Prediction for Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators Playoff Series

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistApril 29, 2013

Preview and Prediction for Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators Playoff Series

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    All of Canada may have wanted to see the Montreal Canadiens meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs, but that's not going to happen.

    Instead, they will get to see a different all-Canadian matchup as the Northeast Division champion Montreal Canadiens will meet the plucky and gutsy Ottawa Senators in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    Both teams had remarkable regular seasons for varying reasons. The Canadiens were the last-place team in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, and they went through a changing of the guard in the offseason. Marc Bergevin took over as general manager and new head coach Michel Therrien brought discipline and accountability to the team.

    The Canadiens played solid defense and combined that with timely scoring throughout the majority of the season. They slipped in the final weeks but did enough to win the division.

    The Senators were tormented by serious injuries throughout the season, but they never lost faith or intensity under head coach Paul MacLean. The most serious injury was a partially torn Achilles tendon suffered by Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson, but he made an amazing recovery and returned to action in the final week of the regular season.

    These two teams could push each other to the limit, and a seven-game series would not be a surprise.

Regular-Season Recap

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    The Canadiens and Senators split four games this season, with both teams winning one game in regulation and one game in a shootout.

    The NHL's unique record-keeping gives each team a 2-1-1 record in the season series.

    Both teams won their games on home ice.

    Three of the games in the series were played prior to the end of February, and the two teams have not squared off since a March 13 Montreal 4-3 shootout victory.

    The Senators scored the only decisive victory in the series when they rolled to a 5-1 triumph Jan. 30. The Senators spotted the Canadiens Tomas Plekanec's opening goal, but they bounced back to pound five goals by Montreal backup goalie Peter Budaj, who was making his first start of the season.

Key Storylines

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    The Canadiens return to the playoff after a one-year absence.

    When Montreal last made a postseason appearance, it lost a dramatic seven-game series against arch-rival Boston that was decided in overtime. The Canadiens had tied up that seventh game with a late power-play goal by defenseman P.K. Subban, but Nathan Horton of the Bruins sent the Canadiens home with a blast early in the extra session.

    The Bruins went on to win the Stanley Cup. Had the Canadiens gotten that last goal, perhaps they would have made a run at the big prize.

    If Montreal is going to have a wondrous postseason, goalie Carey Price is going to have to rebound from an end-of-season malaise that nearly kept the Canadiens from taking the division and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Head coach Michel Therrien has expressed confidence publicly in Price, but he may have second thoughts and could turn to backup Peter Budaj.

    The Senators have been one of the NHL's most indomitable teams. When they suffered key injuries to Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson, they could have fallen to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

    However, head coach Paul MacLean never felt sorry for himself or his team, and his players took their cue from their outstanding leader. The Senators have achieved greatly just to make the postseason as the seventh seed, and they should be able to play free and easy hockey without feeling much pressure.

Players to Watch

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    Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens, RW

    On the surface, Gallagher is merely a rookie role player for the Montreal Canadiens. However, he has that extra bit of flavor to his game that could make a difference. There are great expectations for stars like Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Lars Eller and Michael Ryder, but the shifty Gallagher will go to the dirty areas and make big plays when it matters most.

    He scored a key goal in the Canadiens' season-ending victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs that earned them the division title. Look for Gallagher (15 goals, 13 assists, plus-10) to play a key role for the Canadiens throughout the series.


    P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens, D

    Those who aren't Canadiens supporters tend to get riled up at the thought of Subban because he is an agitator who will try to milk penalty calls from the officials. However, he is a superb skater and a game-changing defenseman. He scored 11 goals and added 27 assists and was plus-12 this season. He is also underrated in the defensive aspects of the game. He is a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate.


    Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, D

    He is the most creative offensive defenseman in the NHL, and he helps raise the Senators' game to a higher level. It was assumed that he was done for the season when Pittsburgh Penguins hooligan Matt Cooke stepped on his Achilles and tore the tendon, but Karlsson made a remarkable recovery and returned to play the last three games of the season. He looked sharp and strong in his return. Karlsson can change the pace of any game with his skating, stick-handling, shooting and passing.

    He set up the Senators' game-winner in the season finale against the Bruins when he made a wicked cross-ice pass to defense partner Marc Methot, who was able to whip a strong shot on goal. Jean-Gabriel Pageau jumped on the rebound for the game-winner.

    Karlsson (six goals, eight assists in 17 games) then made a key defensive play on Brad Marchand that kept the Bruins from tying the game. He is a huge difference-maker in the series.


    Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators, RW

    Alfredsson is the face of the Senators franchise, and if the team had fallen out of the playoff race as a result of its numerous injuries, Alfredsson could have been traded. But he remained with the Senators and he is still a vital performer, even if he is 40 years old. Alfredsson scored 10 goals and 15 assists this season, and he will provide leadership in this series.

Goaltender Breakdown

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    Carey Price and Peter Budaj, Montreal Canadiens

    Overall, the numbers and the results are solid for Price. He recorded a 21-13-4 record with a 2.59 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage.

    However, Price went through a severe slump during his last eight games of the season. He was 2-6-0 in those games, and his save percentage was below .900 in six of those games. He was especially dreadful against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 13 when he was driven from the net after giving up three goals on the first four shots of the game.

    Backup Peter Budaj (8-1-1, 2.29, .908) is an adequate goalie who was in net for Montreal's 4-1 victory over Toronto in the season finale. Head coach Michel Therrien may be giving Budaj strong consideration because Price's recent form has been so unreliable.


    Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, Ottawa Senators

    The Senators have gotten superb goaltending from Anderson and backup Robin Lehner, who was forced to take over as the starter after Anderson suffered an ankle injury.

    Anderson is healthy once again, and he had the best goals-against average in the league. Anderson was 12-9-2 with a 1.69 GAA and a .941 save percentage.

    Lehner (2.22, .936) was nearly as good when he played for the Senators.

    Both goalies do a superb job of playing the angles and making acrobatic stops on tough rebounds.

Biggest Mismatch

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    The Montreal Canadiens are a creative offensive team that can put together picture-perfect plays and score goals in bunches.

    The Ottawa Senators are a defensive-minded team, but they struggle to put the puck in the net.

    The Canadiens have a huge advantage when it comes to playmaking and scoring. They have a myriad of scorers, including Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Michael Ryder and P.K. Subban, who can be patient with the puck and then make the right play at the last possible instant to set up a goal.

    The Senators aren't nearly as dangerous. Erik Karlsson can ignite the attack from the blue line, veteran Daniel Alfredsson still has a vicious shot and Kyle Turris can also take advantage of his opportunities. But the Senators can't match up with their rivals in offensive proficiency.

    The Canadiens averaged 3.04 goals per game to rank fourth in the league. The Senators averaged a paltry 2.33 goals per game to rank 27th in the NHL. The Senators are the lowest-scoring team in the playoffs.

Montreal Canadiens Will Win If...

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    The Canadiens were not a fluky team this year. They wiped the slate clean when the lockout ended, and the talent was more than adequate to become one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.

    The Canadiens are a highly skilled offensive team that can score goals in bunches and take the heart out of their opponents. They are not as dynamic offensively as the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins, but they don't have to take a backseat to any other Eastern Conference team.

    Their offense should be reliable in this series, even if they are going up against a sound defensive team. The Senators are not going to shut down the Montreal offense.

    However, the Canadiens need to get solid play in goal. Carey Price may no longer be thought of as one of the best goalies in the league. However, his recent play has been far below average. He's going to have to play much better than he has shown in the past month.

    If head coach Michel Therrien does not think Price can play well, that could sink his team's overall confidence. They'll put on a brave front if backup Peter Budaj is in the net, but it will be difficult for the Canadiens to win if their top goalie does not perform adequately.

Ottawa Senators Will Win If...

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    The Senators have to play good old-fashioned playoff hockey if they are going to beat the favored Montreal Canadiens.

    That means they have to play defense first, defense second and defense third.

    They cannot skate with the Canadiens or score with them, but they are a better defensive team. That means they have to keep mistakes to a minimum in order to prevent the Canadiens from getting easy scoring chances.

    Ideally, the Senators will get an early goal or two and then play shutdown defense. Whether head coach Paul MacLean goes with Craig Anderson or Robin Lehner in net, he knows he will get reliable goaltending. Give either goaltender a one- or two-goal lead and the Senators have an excellent chance of coming away with a victory.

    If they fall behind and are forced to open up, they will likely give up a lot of odd-man breaks. That would play into the Canadiens' hands.


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    The Montreal Canadiens are a better and more complete team than the Ottawa Senators.

    Take away the intangibles and it's clear the Canadiens have more skilled players who are at the peak of their powers than the Senators. When it comes down to playmaking and scoring, the Canadiens have a decided edge.

    But the Senators are not without their strengths. They have perhaps the best and most creative player on the ice in Erik Karlsson, and their goaltending has been superb.

    Additionally, the Senators have been through too much this year to simply roll over because they are playing a storied team that has a boatload of firepower. The Senators know they have overcome serious injuries that would have stopped lesser teams in their tracks.

    The Canadiens have serious goaltending issues. However, Carey Price is not a bad goaltender. He knows that it all comes down to his playoff performance, and he will find a way to bounce back from his recent slump.

    The Senators will give Montreal a brutal fight, but in the end the Canadiens have home-ice advantage. They will use it all the way through this series, and Les Glorieux will win it in seven games.