You hear that sound? That annoying beeping sound? That's the sound of Montreal Canadiens backing into the playoffs.
Beep, beep, beep...
And just like a delivery truck slowly backing up, steering by, looking in the rear view mirror and trying not to hit the delivery door too hard behind them, the Habs finally and tenuously qualified for the postseason in Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Leafs.
Their reward? A first round playoff series against the Washington Capitals starting Thursday in Washington.
One of the saddest parts of their playoff birth has got to be the handful of Habs fans running around downtown Montreal like the Canadiens had just won the Cup.
Wow, that was sad.
Have Habs fans really sunk to that level? Have they, like many in Leafs nation, become so desperate for any sign of success that they will take to the streets in celebration of a playoff birth clinched in the final game of the season, on a loss?
Oh, how this franchise has fallen from glory.
While there is every reason to be happy that the Canadiens qualified for the playoffs, we have to look at the situation in its proper light.
So here's the skinny...
Hope springs eternal in Montreal today. And why not? The Habs do after all have a 2-1-1 record against the Caps this year.
The sad reality, however, is that the Canadiens blew several opportunities to clinch a playoff spot over the last two weeks of play, and have won only three of their last 11 games.
In addition, Michael Cammalleri, their No.1 sniper, has only two points—both of them assists—through nine games since returning from injury.
The Canadiens have managed three or more goals only four times over their last 11 games, scoring two goals on four occasions, one goal on two occasions and getting shutout once.
The Habs have three players with 25 or more goals—Michael Cammalleri (26), Brian Gionta (28) and Tomas Plekanec (25) and their 217 goals for rank second lowest in the NHL—Boston is the lowest with 206—of all teams that qualified for the playoffs.
The Caps, on the other hand, finished first in the league with a 54-15-13 record, good enough for 121 points. With 318 goals for, the Caps are the only team in the league to score more than 300 this season.
They have seven players with 20 or more goals, three with 30 or more, two with 40 or more and one, Alex Ovechkin, with 50.
In addition, the Caps boast the top-scoring defenseman in the league—Mike Green—who had 76 points including 19 goals this season.
This is a team that is built for offense—much like the Oilers of the 80's—and as such, rely on devastating their opponents offensively rather than shutting them down defensively.
The Caps' fire wagon style is actually a system that suits the Canadiens, given their speedy, attacking forward corps.
The problem, as always, will be to see how the Canadiens respond to the much bigger Capitals forwards and defensemen.
The Canadiens will need Cammalleri and Pouliot to shake off their scoring slumps in addition to getting regular contributions from the third and fourth lines—like they received during their six-game winning streak—in order to have any chance of winning.
With Andrei Markov, Ryan O'Byrne, Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, Josh Gorges and Hal Gill patrolling the Habs' blue line, the Canadiens have an average back end.
With the exception of Markov and maybe Gorges, the Habs have a lead-footed blue corps that could be exposed by the Caps speed up front.
Markov, as always, will be counted on heavily to be the offensive catalyst for the Canadiens and will be clearly targeted by the Caps, for physical punishment.
The only physical dimension to the Habs' back end is Ryan O'Byrne. He will be called upon to move the much larger Caps players from in front of the net.
Aside from a major size advantage, The Caps defense is not unlike the Habs' in that aside from the offensive prowess of Mike Green, they are perhaps only slightly better than average.
The major difference is that the Caps don't need their defense to be much more than that in order to win while the Jacques-Martin-coached Habs do.
Advantage: A push, with maybe a slight edge to the Caps given that their game does not rely on defense and the Habs' does.
When the season started in Montreal, the hope was that this was the year that Carey Price would truly seize the No. 1 goaltending spot in Montreal. 82 games later, the exact opposite has happened with Jaroslav Halak emerging as the clear starter for the playoffs.
With a 2.40 GAA and .924 save percentage, Halak has become a top net minder in the league this year. In addition, he has the added psychological advantage of knowing that he was single handedly responsible for the Slovaks defeating Alex Ovechkin and Team Russia, in the Olympics this year.
If the Capitals have an Achilles Heel in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is their goaltending.
While both Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore—who rose like a Phoenix from ashes this year—have played well this season, I am not convinced that either of them can take the Caps to the promised land.
The advantage for both goalies is that, like their defense, they don't need to be all-stars in order for the Caps to win.
Theodore seems like the logical choice to be the Caps playoff starter with 47 games played and a 30-7 win-loss record this year. But, with an acceptable 2.81 GAA and .911 save percentage, he doesn't necessarily shut the door on the opposition when the Caps win.
If Halak can bring the kind of game he has played all season—and especially in the Olympics—the Caps, like the Russians in Vancouver, could become frustrated.
That frustration could lead to penalties and mistakes that the speedy Canadien forwards might be able to capitalize on.
Goaltending could actually be the deciding factor in this series as Halak has shown the ability to win games all by himself.
Can he now win a series too?
The Washington Capitals have the No. 1 ranked power play in the league, clicking at a frightening 25.4 percent efficiency rate while the Canadiens are second with a 21.8 percent efficiency rate.
The problem for the Habs is that over their last 11 games, they have gone 5-for-40 on the power play (12.5 percent efficiency). That is simply not good enough and if the Canadiens are going to have any chance of winning, they will need to be averaging at least one power play goal per game.
The Canadiens have the 11th overall penalty killing unit in the league (83 percent)and Hal Gill will be counted on heavily to shut down the left side.
The Caps, on the other hand, have the 25th overall penalty kill operating at a 78.9 percent efficiency rate.
Advantage: Essentially a push. Both teams, at least statistically speaking, have the other team by the throat on the PP. That being said, the Habs PK is stronger than the Caps and their goaltending is also better so I would give the Canadiens a razor thin edge.
If they can find their mid-season power play form they might be able to tip the scales in their favor.
The defensive duo of Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek versus Alexander Ovechkin will be the key matchup in this series.
During their first game of the season, the Hamrlik-Spacek duo simply shut down Ovechkin as he was held to five shots on goal and no points. It was during that game the Canadiens found a formula for success against the Caps.
In subsequent games, Ovechkin was able to get the better of that duo and the Caps won as a result.
While there will be plenty of other X-factors during the series, if Hamrlik and Spacek can shutdown Ovechkin in two, three or more games, that could shift the advantage to the Habs.
If, however, Ovechkin completely over powers the two 35-year old defensemen, the Caps will make short work of the Canadiens.
How They'll Win
The Habs will win the series if Cammalleri starts scoring again, the third and fourth lines start contributing regularly on the scoreboard, the Canadiens score at least one power play goal per game, they play disciplined hockey, minimize the number of penalties they take, Hamrlik and Spacek shutdown Ovechkin and Halak steals the show.
The Caps will win if they exploit their physical advantage, Ovechkin dances circles around the Hamrlik-Spacek defensive dragnet, their power play continues to operate at a 25 percent click and if they basically play the way they have played all season long.
While the season series has been close between these two teams, logic would dictate that the Caps will roll over the Habs.
A lot of things have to go right for the Canadiens to have any chance in this series but, if there is one thing we have learned from this team, it is to expect the unexpected.
When you think they are down they surprise you with an outstanding effort and when you think they'll win, they pull out a stinker.
So while on paper, the Caps should sweep the Canadiens in four straight, don't be surprised if the Habs make a series out of this one. A first round upset is highly unlikely, in my opinion, but not out of the question.
That being said, I believe that the Caps will simply be too much for the Canadiens and that their physical and offensive advantages will simply win out over the course of a best-of-seven series.
Prediction: Washington in 5 games