With their dominating performance over the Minnesota Wild this past Sunday, the Montreal Canadiens have all but assured themselves a birth in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. With a comfortable 11 point cushion over the 9th place Buffalo Sabres, the team can start looking ahead to the second season and begin working on following up last year's thrilling run to the conference finals.
Although an improvement over last year will be difficult, it isn't out of the question. The Habs have shown, time and time again, that they are capable of skating with the best in the league. In order for them to take the next step however, the Bleu Blanc Rouge will need a number of pieces to fall into place.
The following will outline the eight things the Habs will need in order to take a sip from hockey's Holy Grail.
The Habs have been completely decimated by injuries this season and will head into the playoffs with a depleted lineup. Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Jaroslav Spacek and Mike Cammalleri have all missed significant time. It's true a testament to the collective character of the squad, the ability of the coaching staff, and the organizational depth of the team that the Habs are even in a playoff position at this point.
Despite the fact that they will be deprived of the services Markov and Gorges, there is some good news on the injury front.
Jaroslav Spacek is due to return by the end of the month. The injuries to Thomas Plekanec and Jeff Halpern do not seem to be serious and their return to the lineup is imminent. Mathieu Darche is skating on his own, and Max Pacioretty could very well be back for the playoffs.
Although they have preformed admirably to date, the weakened Habs will need their veterans come playoff time. The team will need to avoid any other major injuries if they are to achieve some sort of success this spring.
Prior to the now infamous incident with Zdeno Chara, Max Pacioretty was on fire. In the 15 games prior to March 8, Pacioretty had 13 points. He was laying people out, wreaking havoc in front of opposing goalies and lighting the lamp with regularity, The most impressive thing about all of this however, is that he was doing it all playing on Scott Gomez's wing.
Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Cammalleri, Lars Eller and Benoit Pouliot had all failed when placed next to Gomez. Other than the team's captain, Pacioretty was the only player who seemed capable of complementing the Alaskan Enigma. Pacioretty gives with team a significant boost in the size department and is among the few wingers capable of assuming a top six role. Without Pacioretty, it doesn't seem likely that the Gomez line will be able to help lead this team through the first round.
Aside from Yaroslav Halak, Mike Cammalleri was the team's best player last spring. Upon his return from injury, Cammalleri had some difficulty finding his grove (sound familiar?). After scoring only two points in nine games prior to the playoffs, Cammalleri went on an absolute tear, scoring 13 goals and 19 points in 19 games. Cammalleri, who has shown a knack for scoring big goals, will have to step up his current offensive output if his team is to challenge the league's elite.
One of the simplest ways to get Cammalleri to re-enter his comfort zone would be to have him retake his usual spot on the power play, around the right hash marks. For some reason, the team's best sniper has gotten away from what made him successful. Instead of unleashing his lethal one-timer from his sweet spot, he seems to be roving around the offensive zone looking for openings. Whether its a coaching decision, or a lack of confidence on his part, Cammalleri needs to get back to what earned him his six million dollar paycheck.
Year in, year out, Stanley Cup winning teams always have a dominant checking line center. The Hawks had Bolland, the Pens has Staal, the Wings had Draper, the Ducks had Pahlsson...you get the point.
The Habs will need a center capable of stifling the opponents best players. The Habs will need a man capable of winning key faceoffs, killing penalties and playing smart defensive hockey. Jeff Halpern is that man.
Prior to his injury, Halpern was playing wing on the Plekanec line. Despite his initial success in that role, and the subsequent success of Desharnais and Eller, Halpern should reassure his spot on the third line.
The Plekanec line would be given more offensive opportunities if some defensive responsibilities were shifted to the Halpern line. Secondly, the move would give the suddenly surging Andrei Kostitsyn to rejoin the team's number one center and once again play big minutes. It's unlikely that Martin, with his penchant for veteran players, would give the Eller line much ice time in the playoffs, so this would be a way to ensure that the team's hottest player gets the minutes he needs to flourish.
Hall Gill's effort in last year's playoff run was nothing short of heroic. In 18 games played, he blocked an astounding 68 shots. Night in, night out, Gill sacrificed his body for the sake of his team. Unfortunately, the teams second most prolific shot blocker, Josh Gorges, will not be playing alongside Gill this year. Someone will have to step up and put the team before his own personal well being.
The Habs are currently among the league leaders in blocked shots and must be willing to continue the trend if they are to take the pressure off their young net minder. Speaking of that young net minder...
Carey Price has been the team's best player all year, The once promising young player has become a dominating force who has stolen his fair share of games for the Habs this season. Despite his success this year, Price needs to do one more thing in order to finally prove that Pierre Gauthier chose the right man. He needs to win in the playoffs.
In the little playoff experience he has had so far, Price has had a fair amount of difficulty. In 19 games played, he has only five wins and a save percentage below .900. To be fair, those stats have as much to do with the team in front of him as they do with his abilities. Unfortunately hockey isn't fair and Price will be dogged relentlessly about his mental toughness if he doesn't have a Halakian performance. The team won't get very far either.
Everything is intensified in the playoffs. Every game, every shift, every play. The players and their actions will be magnified and analyzed endlessly by the media and the fans. Above all other players to compete for Lord Stanley's Cup, PK Subban will surely face the most intense and likely the harshest criticism.
Beginning with his "interaction" with Mike Richards earlier in the year, Subban has been under the microscope. For some reason, a young and talented defenseman capable of dominating the game with his speed and skill set doesn't sit well with opposing players and old-school media types.
Subban, partly due to his abilities and partly due to his confidence, now plays with a target on his back. Opposing players take liberties with him while the media criticizes him for his brash play. Despite this extra attention, Subban and the Habs will need to keep their composure and focus on the task at hand. The players can't let themselves be carried away by all the side shows that will undoubtedly emerge throughout the spring. This is perhaps most true for the team's young stud on defense.
The Habs cannot beat the Flyers.
In two of the past three years, the Flyers sent the Canadiens home early. The Broad Street Bullies have the speed to match up with the Habs and play the type of physical game that the team has difficulty handling.
The Flyers are deeper down the middle and are bigger at wing. Chris Pronger is still a dominant force and Sergei Bobrovski has emerged as a capable starting goalie. Claude Giroux has emerged as one of the league's top players and Daniel Briere has once again become an all-star caliber player. If the Habs are to be successful, they must avoid playing Philadelphia.
With Ovechkin being shut down for most of the remaining 10 games, the Flyers are likely finish first in the East. The Habs need to avoid the eighth spot at all costs. They have proven that when they are on their game, they can beat the likes of Washington, Boston and Pittsburgh. Unfortunately for the Habs, the same can't be said about Phili. Canadiens fans have to cross their fingers and hope that someone else can take out the Flyers for them.