Doomed was too strong a word to use to describe the Montreal Canadien’s prospects in the first round against the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.
Les habitants staged an improbable comeback after falling behind three games to one. The last two games of the series were played almost exclusively in the Canadien’s end, yet luck, enough offense—especially on the power play—and some epic poem-generating goaltending from Jarolsav Halak allowed the Canadien’s to rope a dope their way to the second round.
The reward for defeating the number one seed in the league in the first round of the playoffs is of course a matchup versus the highest seed left in the east; the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
No epic poems will be written about their first round series or Marc-Andre Fleury’s goaltending in it. Crosby might get a stanza or two for his globetrotter weave behind the net, game-saving clear, goal, and assist (the Crosby hat trick) in Game Two, or his league-leading 14 playoff points.
Ottawa managed a Game One win and hung on with a triple overtime victory in Game Five. Pittsburgh had to overcome a three-goal deficit in Game Six but did so handily to win the series in overtime 4-3 and four games to two.
Pittsburgh should have less trouble with Montreal than they did with Ottawa. In fact, the upset of the top three seeds in the west seems to have paved the way for a Penguin return to the Stanley Cup finals. They could easily come away from the Montreal series and a matchup with the best of Philadelphia-Boston rested and healthy and waiting for a Western Champion to face.
Goaltending looks to be the weakest part of the Pittsburgh team. Fleury is fresh from two good back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances. The first time against the Red Wings he looked too highly strung and yet performed well. Last year he seemed to have gotten those jitters under control and was a crucial part of the Stanley Cup victory.
This regular season Marc-Andre Fleury seems to have gotten too calm and comfortable in net. His .905 save percentage during the regular season was miserable. In a league where goalies who play at least half their team’s minutes have a median save percentage of .913, .905 is unacceptable from a supposedly elite goalie.
Only Brian Boucher and Pascal Leclaire are goalies who have played in this year's playoffs and had worse save percentages in the regular season than Fleury.
Jaroslav Halak on the other hand had another brilliant season in net for Montreal. He finished with a .924 save percentage tying him with Jimmy Howard and putting him behind only Tuukka Rask .931, Ryan Miller .929, and Tomas Vokoun .925.
If possible he’s looked better in the playoffs, single handedly inspiring the Canadiens past Washington while absorbing 93.9 percent of the Washington Capitals' 41.7 shots on goal per game. Halak gives the Canadiens a huge advantage in net.
The Pittsburgh defense, despite the loss of Stanley Cup veterans Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, have had a good year keeping pucks away from Fleury. They managed to allow only 28.6 shots per game against in the regular season, fifth best in the league. Their total has been around the same in the playoffs, and that’s only middle of the pack among these playoff teams so far. Orpik is a killer back there and should do a job on a few of the smaller Montreal forwards.
The Montreal defense, despite the praise they’ve been given for shots blocked and their checking of Ovechkin, have given up a league-worst 41.7 shots per game. It’s an extraordinary total and they need to get that under control to have any chance with Pittsburgh.
The Canadiens will have to dedicate the same sort of attention to Crosby that they did to Ovechkin. Hopefully they can hold him to less than the 10 points Ovechkin got. Crosby, the former habs fan, is likely to be key to finishing off the Canadiens this playoff season.
Even if they do manage to slow down Crosby, look for Malkin and that mobile defense Gonchar, Goligoski and Letang to pick up the offensive slack. The problem with Pittsburgh is always that after their two big offensive stars they’re relying on Guerin, Ponikarovsky, and Kunitz et al to fill in.
The checking line of Staal, Cooke, Kennedy, and/or Talbot or Adams can be expected to shut down most of Cammalleri’s offense. That should be enough for them to win.
The Montreal offense was lead by Cammalleri, but look for Pittsburgh to shut him down. If Plekanec and his line mates can’t generate something, expect the Canadiens to have an even tougher time scoring. They’ve got to be hoping for soft goals again, this time through Fleury.
They can’t expect as many power play opportunities as they got against Washington. Pittsburgh’s penalty kill was ninth best in the regular season though they had trouble against Ottawa giving up seven goals on 22 chances in the last series.
The Canadiens should have no chance, yet again, against the Pittsburgh Penguins. They need a good checking job on Crosby, some soft goals past Fleury, incredible goaltending from Halak and all the luck in the world to beat Pittsburgh. Most of that luck had to have been used up against Washington.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in five
The Philadelphia Flyers are facing the Boston Bruins in the other eastern matchup. The Bruins were the second worst offensive team in the league this year managing a mere 206 goals for in 82 games. The good news is that the injured Dennis Seidenberg and Marc Savard look ready to return.
Tuukka Rask won a goaltending duel with Olympic MVP and likely Vezina trophy winner Ryan Miller. Mark Recchi can’t be this team's leading goal scorer. Someone under 40 has to pick up the offensive slack for this warrior.
Brian Boucher had a fine first series versus New Jersey. It can’t be expected to last. The Flyers defense was hugely improved this year. This Flyers lineup looks like one of the few that can absorb the loss of two key offensive players like Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne. Boston looks like one of the few teams that a Flyers team with Boucher in net can beat. Boston has to get some offense rolling to have a chance.
Prediction: Philadelphia in six
San Jose started their series well, catching the old, tired Red Wings 4-3 in Game One. Look for the Red Wings to look much better with rest on Sunday.
Jimmy Howard hasn’t seemed like the same goalie in the playoffs as he did in the regular season. He gave up 22 goals in seven games against a Phoenix team that didn’t have a player who scored 25 goals or 60 points for them in the regular season. Their goal scoring leader Lee Stempniak (28) and points leader Wotjek Wolski (65) were both late season additions. Age and the work load seems to have slowed Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom a step.
San Jose, however, also has had playoff issues. Nabokov, despite a .919 save percentage and 1.93 GAA in the first round, has looked very beatable at times. The San Jose defense kept the shots against him way down in the first round.They were best in the league giving up only 24.6 shots per game.
Detroit will get more than that and Nabokov’s numbers will suffer. Joe Pavelski and the second line have kept San Jose in the games versus Colorado by taking the scoring burden off of Thornton and Heatley. Detroit has the luxury of using Datsyuk versus Thornton and the first line and an exclusive checking line against Pavelski and Setoguchi and Clowe.
That could throttle the San Jose offense. San Jose needs to be happy that they won a series and that first game versus Detroit. That might be it for them.
Prediction: Detroit in five
Vancouver versus Chicago is a rematch from last year’s second round. That series was decided by Chicago’s superabundance of talent and speed. Vancouver’s defense looks slower and more banged up than they were last year. They’ll have to use Kesler and a checking line to contain one of Chicago’s scorers.
If Toews and/or Kane are contained do Sharp, Hossa or Versteeg run wild on you? Luongo looks to win any goaltending race with Niemi. He lost out last year to Khabibulin and he needs to outplay the Chicago keeper. It’s a shame Chicago wasn’t more proactive about finding a goalie this year.
Samuelsson has been great for Vancouver so far in the playoffs. Some offense from Alex Burrows would look good, too. This looks like the best matchup of the second round and again mostly because of Chicago’s flawed goaltending. Luongo will need to be great for Vancouver to win this. In the end the gold medal-winning Olympian may not be good enough.
The depth of Chicago’s offensive talent at forward and defense is likely to be the determining factor. Niemi will help keep Vancouver in it. If Huet plays it’s all over for Chicago.
Prediction: Chicago in seven