Emerging Storylines for Montreal Canadiens' 2014 Postseason

Brandon DuBreuil@@brandondubreuilContributor IIIApril 3, 2014

Emerging Storylines for Montreal Canadiens' 2014 Postseason

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    The Montreal Canadiens are officially heading to the 2013-14 Stanley Cup playoffs. They didn't exactly clinch in style, having lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 2, but losses by both Washington and New Jersey on the same day assured Montreal of a postseason birth.

    The Habs return to the playoffs for the second straight season. Last year's postseason was a bit of a disaster, as the Canadiens got outplayed in every facet of the game en route to a 4-1 series loss to the Ottawa Senators

    Montreal will look for a much different result this time around, likely against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The two teams are probable to meet in the first round, and they will spend the rest of the regular season jockeying for home-ice advantage. 

    The NHL calendar ends on April 13. The Canadiens still have seven games remaining on their schedule, but you can bet the topic of conversation in Montreal will be related to the playoffs for the next couple of weeks.

    Here are some emerging storylines for the Montreal Canadiens' 2014 postseason. 

First-Round Opponent: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    When the NHL realigned its divisions prior to this season, it also tweaked the playoff format. The biggest change was that the second- and third-place teams in each division automatically play each other in the first round, no matter where they sit in the overall conference standings. 

    This means that the Montreal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning are a virtual lock to meet in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. 

    With 10 days left in the 2013-14 season, the Canadiens and Lightning both have 93 points (although Tampa Bay has one game in hand). The first-place Boston Bruins cannot be reached at 110 points, and the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings (85 points) would need a miracle to move up. This means that the Habs and Lightning will spend the final few games of the season battling for home-ice advantage. 

    If the regular season is any indication of the postseason, then fans should expect a tight series between these two teams. 

    The Lightning did win three of four in the regular-season series, but only one of those wins came in regulation. Tampa Bay's other two wins were both by the score of 2-1, one in overtime and one in a shootout. Montreal's only win was a 2-1 shootout win in Tampa. 

    Here are a few other interesting facts about the Canadiens and Lightning this season:

    • The home team only won once in the season series.
    • There were only 10 goals scored in regulation, and one of those was into an empty net. 
    • The Lightning outshot the Canadiens in every game. 
    • Montreal didn't score a power-play goal against Tampa Bay this season. 

    It was a close, low-scoring series between the two teams in 2013-14, and the playoffs should bring more of the same. The Canadiens and Lightning should make for an interesting first-round matchup. 

First-Line Chemistry

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    When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Thomas Vanek at the trade deadline, it appeared that the move was made to provide the team with scoring depth. 

    At the time, the Habs had a first line that was already scoring, comprised of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher. Vanek was slotted onto the second line, alongside Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, in hopes of creating secondary goals.

    Vanek, however, struggled in his first few games, as there appeared to be little chemistry between him and the two veteran Canadiens. And so the ever-impatient Michel Therrien bumped Vanek to the right side of the first line, in place of Gallagher, in the third period of Boston's comfortable win over Montreal on March 13.

    That decisions turned out to be one of the best coaching moves he has made all season. The line clicked, and now the Canadiens feature a truly elite first line. 

    The new top line in Montreal has accounted for 34 points in the 10 games (plus one period) since March 13. Here are their individual stat lines over that time:

    • Thomas Vanek: 6G, 5A, 11P
    • David Desharnais: 4G, 8A, 12P
    • Max Pacioretty: 5G, 6A, 11P

    Vanek has been a solid addition for the Canadiens and seems to be fitting in nicely with his new linemates. He seems to be well worth the price paid by Marc Bergevin.

    Montreal's top line has been playing well of late, and it's hoping carry some momentum into the playoffs. Its ability to score on Ben Bishop will be a key factor in Montreal's first-round matchup with Tampa Bay. 

Injury Concerns

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    The Montreal Canadiens have a fair amount of injury concerns as the postseason nears. Here's a quick update on those who are currently out:

    • Josh Gorges has not played since March 5 because of a broken left hand, but his return could be near. He is currently traveling with the team and skating on his own. Stu Cowan of Hockey Inside/Out reports that an April 9 return is Gorges' goal. 
    • Dale Weise suffered an upper-body injury after being hit from behind by Boston's Kevan Miller on March 24. SportsInjuryAlert.com reports that it is a wrist injury and that he will be out a minimum of two to three weeks. 
    • Travis Moen was concussed from a punch in the fight that followed the dirty hit on Weise. At the time, the Canadiens said he would be out for a minimum of a week before being reevaluated, via TSN.ca. There hasn't been an update since. 
    • Brandon Prust is out for the remainder of the regular season with an upper-body injury, according to the Canadiens (h/t Andrew Berkshire of Habs Eyes on the Prize). The injury occurred in Montreal's win over Colorado on March 18. He has yet to resume skating with the team. 

    The Habs, like a lot of teams at this time of year, are a little banged up. All four of the above players have important roles on the team and were playing great hockey when they went down. Having them return for the playoffs will be a definite boost to the team. 

Carey Price Is Hot

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    Carey Price has been incredible all season long. He's one of the top reasons why the Canadiens have clinched a playoff spot with seven games still remaining on the schedule.

    Earlier this season and into the Olympics, Price gave Canadiens fans hope. He was playing the best hockey of his career and truly looked like he could carry the team deep into the playoffs. 

    But then he got hurt, and the worries set in. 

    Price ended up missing eight games after the Olympics, during which the Canadiens slumped to a 3-4-1 record while giving up 3.5 goals per game. Even after his return, he didn't look like himself, as he allowed three or more goals in his first four starts. 

    Lately, however, Price has returned to form. He has won three of his last four starts, one of which was a shutout. He even played well in the loss, allowing just two goals to Tampa Bay while making a number of highlight-reel saves. 

    Price will be Montreal's No. 1 key to success in the playoffs. He certainly has the ability to steal a series or two, and it looks like he's regaining his form just in time for the postseason. 

Inconsistent Power Play

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    The Montreal Canadiens are a team that struggles to score at even strength. In fact, their 140 even-strength goals rank them eighth worst in the NHL, according to SportingCharts.com

    This being the case, they need their power play to score goals when given chances. It's as simple as that. 

    The Habs power play has been inconsistent lately. It hasn't scored in its last three games, an 0-for-12 slide. Montreal did score one power-play marker in each of the two games before that, but it was just 1-for-6 in each contest. 

    How ugly has it been? Dating back to the March 22 game in Toronto, the Canadiens have gone just 2-for-26 (7.7 percent) while up a man. That kind of percentage isn't going to cut it in the playoffs. 

    Montreal is clearly struggling with the man advantage, and it's something the team needs to figure out soon. The Habs have seven games left to find ways to produce on the power play before the playoffs begin.