Montreal Canadiens: Power Ranking the Habs Possible First Round Match-Ups

Mark Della PostaContributor IIIMarch 23, 2011

Montreal Canadiens: Power Ranking the Habs Possible First Round Match-Ups

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    There's no use asking an NHLer which team he would like to face in the first round of the playoffs. It's simply a waste of time.

    A professional hockey player will never tell you that he fears one team more than another. He will never admit to preferring certain match-ups over others. As much as one might poke and pry, today's media sensitive NHLer simply won't give an inch.

    This unwillingness to provide bulletin board material often leads to standard hockey answers such as "We're just happy to make the playoffs" and "Any team is going to be a tough challenge". Despite their robotic answers however (ever seen a Saku Koivu post game interview?), they are human. Players do look at the standings and do prefer to play some teams over others.

    With a playoff spot all but locked up, all that is left to be determined for the Montreal Canadiens is seeding. The Habs are currently sixth in the East, but are within striking distance of the division title. It's conceivable that the Habs can face any of the other eight teams currently in a playoff position.

    The following will rank the most preferred match-ups for the Habs in the first round of this year's playoffs. Only teams currently in a playoff position will be included in the following power rankings,

7. Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Philadelphia Flyers are unquestionably the worst match-up for the Habs this spring. In two of the past three seasons, the Flyers have sent the Habs home early. The have the near perfect combination of size, the speed and the skill that the Habs simply don't have the tools to deal with.

    If one were to analyze the structure of both teams, this really shouldn't come as a surprise.

    Up front, the Flyers have the Habs outmatched on all four lines. At the center ice position, Thomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez will have trouble competing with the size and strength of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Add a resurgent Daniel Briere to than mix and you've got a recipe for disaster.

    The discrepancy at the wing position is even more severe. With Max Pacioretty's availability in question, the Habs are left with Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn as the only reliable to semi-reliable scoring options. The Flyers counter with an emerging Claude Giroux, Kris Versteeg, Ville Leino, Scott Hartnell and James Van Riemsdyk.

    On defense, Chris Pronger is still a man beast which the Canadiens have no answer for.

    The only chance the Habs would have at beating the Flyers would be a complete implosion by Sergei Bobrovsky. Unfortunately for the Habs, That still might not be enough.

6. Washington Capitals

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    The Washington Capitals are an extremely talented team with massive holes in their lineup.

    Mike Green, although extremely gifted offensively, has trouble in his own end and is a weak playoff performer. Tom Poti, the team's best defensive defenseman, will be out of action heading into the second season.

    Goal tending is also an issue for the Caps. The trio of Holtby, Neuvirth and Varlamov are shaky at best. None of them have been able to keep a firm grasp on the number one job and have been hot and cold all year. Bruce Budreau may yet again change his number one half way through the first round.

    Finally, Alex Ovechkin sometimes does more harm than good. The uber-talented sniper has a tendency of being a puck hog when his team isn't winning. The Caps could get into trouble if Ovechkin falls into the trap of becoming the predictable player of years past, repeatedly trying to beat the defenseman from the outside and then proceed to cut inside with the wrist shot.Throughtout the course of a seven game series, opposing players tend to figure out the strategy and prepare for it.

    With that being said, it took a super human effort from Jaroslav Halak to beat Washington last year. Price's performance would have to be just as good if the Habs are to send the Capitals to the links once again.

5. Buffalo Sabres

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    Over the course of the past two months, the Buffalo Sabres have lost only eight games in regulation. They have been one of the hottest teams in the league and are peaking at just the right time. The team's success is likely due to a number of key players stepping up.

    First and foremost, Ryan Miller is back to his usual self. After a slow start to the season, the seasoned American is back to stealing games for his team. Over his past 16 games, Miller has a sparkling .925 save percentage.

    Tyler Myers has also stepped up his game in recent months. Myers began the year in the mother of all sophomore slumps. In his first 25 games this season, he was a -10 with only eight points. In his last 25 games, he's a +7 and has scored 15 points.

    Up front, the Sabres are getting consistent contributions from a variety of sources. Thomas Vanek is on pace to score 30 goals, Brad Boyes has fit in nicely with his new club and Tyler Ennis has vaulted himself into the Calder Trophy discussion.

    Buffalo is also in the top half of the league in both power play efficiency and penalty killing.

    The main issue for the Sabres is defense. After a blazing start to the year, with 14 points in his first 20 games, Jordan Leoppold has come back down to earth. After him and Myers, the defense corps isn't exactly the most intimidating or offensively gifted. Even with all of their injuries, the Habs are much deeper on the back end.

    The Sabres always play the Habs tough and have a goaltender capable of winning a round or two on his own. If these two teams meet in the first round, it will likely be the battle between Price and Miller that will decide it.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The Habs are deeper at center than the Pittsburgh Penguins. This will be the only year in the foreseeable future in which that statement isn't followed by a "watch choo talking bout fool?".

    Although Crosby and Malkin may be out of the lineup, this is still an extremely deep team. With the additions of James Neal and Alex Kovalev, they are deeper at wing than they have been in the past. Letang is having a career year and Fleury is still one of the league's elite net minders.

    Unfortunately for the Penguins, no team can survive the loss of its two best players for an extended period of time. The team's power play has already began to suffer, scoring only three goals with the man advantage in their last 15 games. Their margin of error has become too slim for any long term success to be possible.

    The only reason the Penguins aren't lower on this list is due to the possibility that Crosby might be ready before the second season.

3. Boston Bruins

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    On paper, the Boston Bruins are a better team than the Montreal Canadiens. They have higher scoring forwards, a mastodon on defense and statistically stronger goaltenders. Unfortunately for the Bruins, games aren't won on paper.

    When the Habs play their game, they can beat the Bruins. When they push the tempo of the game and rely on their speed and skill, Boston simply doesn't have the wheels to keep up.

    When they try and play Boston's type of game however, they get blown out of the water.

    The Habs simply can't match up to the Bruins in the physicality department. With the likes of Lucic, Hornton and Chara, the Habs will have to keep their composure and focus on beating the Bruins on the score sheet rather than with their fists. The Beantown massacre of February 9th is a prime example of this.

    The one concern for the Habs should be the arrival of career Canadiens killer Thomas Kaberle. Kaberle has been a thorn in the side of Habs fans for years and has given the Bruins the puck moving defenseman that they desperately needed.

    As long as the Habs can contain Kaberle and keep their collective heads cool, they should be able to handle the Bruins like they have in years past.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    There is not a colder team heading into the playoff than the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa has won only two of their past 11 games. Teams that stumble into the playoffs have generally had difficulty turning it back on, so its unlikely that the Lighting will be able to make it through the first round.

    At age 41, Dwayne Roloson is showing sign of slowing down. Stamkos hasn't scored in his past three games and is a -6 over that time span.

    They have an inexperienced head coach, an inexperienced first line center, and an inexperienced defenseman leading the defense corps.

    The only reason the Lightning aren't topping this list is by virtue of the talent that they have up front. Although they aren't clicking right now, St-Louis, Lecavalier and Stamkos have shown in the past that they can completely dominate a game. Also of note is the defensive ability of Dominic Moore. The Canadiens know from experience how effective he can be in that role.

    If the Habs are able to keep their first line in check and keep the pressure on Roloson, they can make quick work of Guy Boucher young team.

1. New York Rangers

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    In recent years, the Habs have utterly dominated the Blue Shirts.

    The Habs have won six of their last eight against the Rangers. Over the past three seasons, the Rangers have won one game at the Bell Center.

    Although the Rangers are deep up front, they may have as many as six 20 goal scorers by the end of the year, their players have been streaky all year. Forwards such as Anisimov and Biran Boyle have gone on lengthy scoring droughts throughout season and can't be counted on as consistent sources of offense. Gaborik has been a shell of himself and Wolski has been a complete bust for the team. Also, let's not discount the Sean Avery distraction that is constantly hovering around the minds of Ranger players.

    Other than Brian McCabe, the defense corps is very inexperienced. Ryan McDonagh, Matt Gilroy, Michael Del Zotto and Michael Sauer have zero playoff games between them. Add to this the fact that Glen Sather inexplicably traded away Michal Roszival, their most experienced defenseman, and its obvious that the Rangers blue line has a lot to learn before they can be successful,

    The only part of this Ranger team that should scare the Canadiens is the play of Dubinsky and Callahan. The two forwards complement each other well and have had some measure of success against the Blue Blanc Rouge. As long as the Habs can contain these two, they should be able to get past the Rangers without much of a problem.