5 Reasons the Montreal Canadiens Can Reach the Eastern Conference Final

Ryan SzporerContributor IIIApril 26, 2014

5 Reasons the Montreal Canadiens Can Reach the Eastern Conference Final

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    While there may be such a thing as too much rest during the NHL playoffs, the first-to-move-on Montreal Canadiens are still well-primed to advance past the second round and reach the Eastern Conference Final.

    The Habs of course made the shortest possible work of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1, sweeping their opponents after starting the series on the first day of the postseason. As a result, they’re poised to get upward of 10 days off—ample time for rust to set in—between their series-clinching win last Tuesday and the start of their Eastern Conference Semifinal.

    While at this point it appears that the Boston Bruins are a lock as their next opponents—seeing as they lead the Detroit Red Wings three games to one—nothing is guaranteed. That’s especially true of a second straight relatively easy series for Montreal. Nevertheless, there is still a good chance that Montreal advances to the third round for the first time since 2010.

    Here are the top five reasons why the Montreal Canadiens can realistically reach the Eastern Conference Final:

5. How They Match Up Well Against Detroit

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    On the off chance the Red Wings are able to come back and actually beat the Boston Bruins, the Canadiens would no doubt welcome them with open arms in Round 2. That’s because they were able to handle them in the regular season, with a 2-1-1 record.

    While Detroit’s 2-2 record against Montreal is proof that the Red Wings would stand a legitimate chance at advancing themselves, the simple truth is this season Montreal is the better team. The Habs did earn seven more wins after all.

    Perhaps more importantly, they’re the better team as far as this postseason is concerned. That’s not even in reference to Montreal’s first-round sweep against the Lightning. It’s that Detroit just isn’t built to go deep in the playoffs, at least according to theScore’s Justin Bourne.

    Bourne theorizes that, while the Wings overall are an average-aged group, the team is made up of too many past-their-prime veterans and young stars in the making, with players hitting their peak between 25 and 29 years of age.

    For all their Pavel Datsyuks, Henrik Zetterbergs and Gustav Nyquists, only eight players fill that criterion, arguably none of them game-breakers: Justin Abdelkader, Joakim Andersson, Luke Glendening, Darren Helm, Jakub Kindl, Kyle Quincey, Brendan Smith and Jonas Gustavsson.

    The Habs on the other hand? They have nine, including stars P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty and Carey Price. Put simply, no matter what anyone says, the Habs should very much prefer to face the Red Wings relative to the Bruins, who have 12.

    That isn’t to say Montreal can’t beat Boston given the chance, though…

4. How They Play Well Against Boston

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    There’s little denying the Bruins are better than Montreal, but whenever the two teams meet the Habs nonetheless somehow find a way to stay competitive. Despite the Bruins holding a 17-point “edge” in the standings this past regular season, Montreal was 3-1 against them.

    Even if you were to argue that the regular season means nothing come the playoffs (Detroit was also 3-1 against Boston this season and are now 1-3), you can’t look past Montreal’s all-time postseason record against Boston: 24-9. That’s pretty lopsided.

    Even if you were to argue in response that a great deal of those Boston losses came decades ago at the hands of some of Montreal’s all-time-great teams, you can’t deny Montreal was able to orchestrate two significant upsets in the not-too-distant past.

    In 2002, Montreal was the eighth-seeded team and Boston was the No. 1 seed. Still, the Habs managed to win in six games. Two seasons later, the seventh-seeded Habs again upset the second-seeded Bruins in seven games in the first round.

    Finally, even if you were to argue a lot has changed since before the 2004-05 lockout and the Habs are a very different team right now relative to back then…well, you’d actually be right. They’re better…and very much capable of beating the Bruins again.

3. How They Played Against Tampa Bay

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    Bruins (and Red Wings) fans need only look to Montreal’s series against Tampa in the first round for proof the Habs are very dangerous.

    Whereas during the regular season the Habs had a worse-than-mediocre 48.4 percent Fenwick rating (in close-score, five-on-five situations), against Tampa Montreal had a 56.2 percent one. That’s just dominant...and it showed, with Montreal scoring goals in bunches, by committee and 16 in all.

    Case in point: Montreal’s top line (Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek) managed a respectable seven points in four games, but got outscored by the Habs’ second one (Brandon Prust, Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher, nine points). That would have been bad enough for Tampa. However, on top of that, Montreal’s third line (Rene Bourque, Lars Eller and Brian Gionta) then outscored that second one (11 points).

    And it’s not like anyone saw it coming either. Tampa is far from a weak team possessionwise. The Lightning were actually a top-10 team in that same category during the regular season (51.2 percent). So, Montreal taking its play to another level against a superior opponent when it matters most at least hints at that possibly happening again against either Detroit or Boston.

    Sure, Tampa was without No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop and reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis was traded away at the deadline this season. However, Tampa, as a team, is not getting enough credit. As a result, neither is Montreal.

    Following the Olympics, Bishop struggled mightily, allowing 51 goals on 536 shots (.905 save percentage) in just 18 games (.924 overall). In those 18 games, Tampa was actually 9-6-3, pointing to a team that was anything but reliant on their Vezina Trophy nominee.

    Meanwhile, without St. Louis, the Lightning went 12-4-4 overall down the stretch. They scored 57 goals in the process, making it pretty clear the loss of their leading scorer wasn’t as much of a factor as Habs detractors would like to believe.

    The fact of the matter is Montreal was just the better team between two very good ones in the first round. There’s also a good chance they can be even better.

2. How Their Special Teams Sucked in Round 1

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    While Montreal did many things right in the first round, scoring power-play goals and killing off penalties were not two of them. So, Montreal was essentially able to dominate Tampa without firing on all cylinders, which should be a very scary thought for its eventual opponents.

    Montreal was able to score just two goals on 13 power-play opportunities in the first round (15.4 percent). And it would have been only one were it not for a literally last-minute series-winning goal by Max Pacioretty (7.8 percent).

    While Montreal’s power play during the regular season wasn’t exactly stellar (17.2 percent, ranked 19th in the league), it is definitely capable of much more right now.

    The same can be said for the penalty kill, which was ranked fourth in the regular season (85.1 percent) but allowed two goals on seven opportunities in the first round (71.4 percent success rate). Needless to say, Montreal, as a whole, can be better. Montreal’s best penalty killer, specifically, can be as well.

1. How Carey Price Can Turn It Up a Notch

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    The Habs undeniably owe much of their regular-season success to Carey Price, but, amazingly, the opposite is pretty much true following the team’s first-round victory over the Lightning.

    In Game 1, Price admittedly got better as the game got older, but that didn’t stop him from allowing three goals. While he wasn’t bad in the strictest sense of the word, he didn’t make the big saves when the Habs needed him to, specifically the two times the Habs went up by one goal in the third period. Tampa twice tied it up, setting the stage for Dale Weise’s overtime winner.

    Game 2 was arguably Price’s best of the series, as he allowed just one goal, losing the shutout bid with just two minutes to go in the third period. However, he faced just 27 shots in what was by all accounts a full-team effort.

    Price faced 29 shots in Game 3 and played very well again, but allowed two goals—three if you believe Ryan Callahan's disallowed one should have counted—including Matt Carle’s very stoppable shot in the third period. That goal made the 3-2 game a lot closer than it should have been.

    Finally, while Price was able to help his team hold on for the Game 4 victory, he was in net for two very stoppable, fluky goals. That’s not including Tyler Johnson’s game-tying 3-3 marker in the third period that nearly led to a Game 5, a goal on which Price again failed to come up big.

    This is a player who posted the second-best save percentage in the league (.927) during the regular season. During these playoffs, he has one of .904, which, in spite of his well-documented struggles in the postseason, is actually worse than his career average (.905).

    That admittedly may hint at more problems come the second round, but, assuming it is against Boston, Habs fans can rest easy. Not only is Price clearly capable of more, he’s enjoyed the greatest postseason success of his career against the Bruins.

    In 2010-11, Price almost led the Habs to a first-round upset of Boston, posting a 2.11 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in seven games against the eventual Stanley Cup champions. And, entering this season, Price’s only playoff series victory came against Boston in his rookie season in 2007-08.

    That he has just added to that series victory total points to progress at the very least and potentially another one this postseason. Even if they get eliminated next round, it also points to the Habs being set in net for many years to come.