Canadiens vs. Senators: Preview and Prediction for the 2015 NHL Playoffs Matchup

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistApril 12, 2015

Canadiens vs. Senators: Preview and Prediction for the 2015 NHL Playoffs Matchup

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    Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    The Ottawa Senators rode a tremendous winning streak into the playoffs, and their reward is the Montreal Canadiens. The two teams met once before in the postseason, with the Senators winning in five games in the 2013 conference quarterfinal.

    The matchup this spring came together late, as both teams entered the final day of the season in need of a successful result. The Canadiens won their game and became Atlantic Division champions, while Ottawa needed a win—and got it—in order to secure a postseason berth. The afternoon victory over the Philadelphia Flyers allowed the Senators to finish No. 7 overall in the Eastern Conference and set up an all-Canadian playoff series.

    The key to this series could come from the goaltending. The Canadiens boast a strong Vezina Trophy candidate in Carey Price, while Ottawa will no doubt run with the newest star in the league, Andrew Hammond.

    One area in which the underdog Senators have an edge is goals per game, where they rank among the league's 10 best. If Hammond can match up against Price—a tall order—Ottawa could win the day.

    What are the big stories? Let's have a look at the two teams and some of the major questions surrounding this series.

Regular-Season Recap

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    The Montreal Canadiens got off to a strong start and were leading the entire NHL on October 31. They were led all season by their brilliant goalie Carey Price, one of the most valuable players in the game and the owner of the league's top save percentage. They were a strong team everywhere, winning 26 at home and 24 on the road. The Canadiens won 50 games for the first time since 1988-89 and for only the seventh time in their storied history.

    The Ottawa Senators had a more adventurous route to the playoffs. In early December the club fired coach Paul MacLean—as detailed by NHL.com's Chris Stevenson—and at that point the team's record was 11-11-5. After naming Dave Cameron coach, Ottawa limped along through Valentine's Day at 21-22-10. From that point on, the Senators stormed the Eastern Conference with a 22-4-3 record and caught a playoff spot on the last day of the season.

Schedule and TV Info

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    Len Redkoles/Getty Images

    Game 1
    Wednesday, April 15
    7 p.m. ET
    Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens
    NHLN-US, CBC, TVA

    Game 2
    Friday, April 17
    7 p.m. ET
    Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens
    CNBC, CBC, TVA

    Game 3
    Sunday, April 19
    7 p.m. ET
    Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators
    NHLN-US, CBC, TVA

    Game 4
    Wednesday, April 22
    7 p.m. ET
    Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators
    USA, CBC, TVA

    *Game 5: Friday, April 24, time TBD (Ottawa at Montreal)

    *Game 6: Sunday, April 26, time TBD (Montreal at Ottawa)

    *Game 7: Tuesday, April 28, time TBD (Ottawa at Montreal)

    *If necessary

Key Storylines

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    Can "The Hamburglar" Continue?

    Andrew Hammond is on a run that has fans running to the history books and opposition shooters shaking their heads. Hammond has posted good numbers in previous seasons but nothing approaching this year's .941 save percentage in the NHL. His minor league numbers look pedestrian, leading many to assume the bubble would burst sooner than later.

    Will that happen in the playoffs? He showed no signs of cracking down the stretch.

    Will Max Pacioretty Play and Be Effective?

    Montreal's top gun offensively suffered a late-season injury that could adversely impact the playoff run. An NHL.com article—quoting the team website—reported he skated on Saturday and coach Michel Therrien suggests Pacioretty is undergoing treatment and responding well. It's a story to follow in the days leading up to the start of the series.

    Those Ottawa Rookies 

    Many fans are surprised by the success of the Senators, and part of that surprise is due to a lack of familiarity with three rookies. Mark Stone scored at an outstanding pace down the stretch and has emerged as a strong Calder Trophy candidate. Mike Hoffman established himself as a solid scoring option and helped the team with even-strength goals, posting 26 for the year. Curtis Lazar worked hard all year in a support role, skating miles and chipping in a little offensively.

    The three rookies, along with youngsters like Hammond, gave the Senators tremendous depth and an ability to overcome injury and slumps. Will they continue to flourish?

Players to Watch

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens

    The brilliant defenseman with the complete skill set and the personality to match should be a central figure in the series. The Norris Trophy candidate posted outstanding numbers this year and plays heavy minutes in all disciplines.

    Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

    The young Swedish defenseman has elite-level puck skills and is a brilliant power-play quarterback. He started slowly when paired with Chris Phillips, and the tandem bled chances—as shown via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com—but turned it around when Marc Methot returned to the lineup. Karlsson may not be a Norris Trophy candidate this year, but he should be, based on merit.

Goaltender Breakdown

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    Graig Abel/Getty Images

    Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

    Carey Price is an impact player and the best in the NHL inside the blue paint. This season he delivered an incredible performance, leading the league in wins, goals-against average and save percentage. He is the best goaltender of his generation and in his prime at age 27. Price should be a lock for the Vezina Trophy and will be a strong candidate for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

    Andrew Hammond, Ottawa Senators

    In many ways, Andrew Hammond of the Ottawa Senators is the opposite of Price. He played one NHL game before this season and would never have been called up without injuries to Ottawa's goaltending tandem. In what might be the most incredible story in the NHL this season, the most amazing stat is this: Hammond's AHL save percentage was .898, which is below average by a significant amount. His NHL save percentage during the regular season—.941—could not have been predicted by anyone.

Biggest Mismatch: Experience in Goal

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Carey Price's NHL Experience: He has been in 435 regular-season NHL games and 42 playoff games.

    Andrew Hammond's NHL Experience: He has been in 25 regular-season NHL games and 73 AHL games.

    Price is an Olympian and led the league in several important categories. He is a consistent, veteran goaltender who is at the top of any list of NHL netminders at this time.

    Hammond came out of nowhere and does not have an established track record of success. His minor league numbers did not indicate this kind of success, and the sample size suggests we can't be certain Hammond can sustain this level of goaltending. The story of this series is likely to involve tremendous goaltending, but will it be at both ends of the ice?

The Canadiens Will Win If Their Scoring Depth Delivers

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    Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    The Montreal Canadiens have several brilliant offensive players, including P.K. Subban and—if healthy—Max Pacioretty. One of the key elements for the team will be scoring from secondary sources. Along with 20-goal scorers Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, the Canadiens badly need scoring from Lars Eller, P.A. Parenteau and several other role players.

    The scoring from the blue line will be covered by established veterans P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, and the goaltending will be stout as long as Price is healthy. The offense can be contained if the top two lines aren't firing and the secondary scorers are unable to contribute. Montreal needs a hero to emerge offensively from the group outside the top guns in order to win the series.

The Senators Will Win If the Kids Keep Doing What They're Doing

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    Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

    The Ottawa Senators are a team in transition, with the old guard—men like Chris Phillips and Chris Neil—having been replaced by exciting new players with promising futures. Youngsters like Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Andrew Hammond have transformed the team from an aging one to a fresh, deep and exciting one.

    Many observers waited for the clock to strike midnight, and it never did during the regular season. For the Senators, the kids being able to sustain their current level of production is the key element to success. The pressure will be enormous, but this young team has been able to get past it for many weeks now and has a significant body of work at this point in time.

    If this young group of players can continue to play at this level, veterans Erik Karlsson, Bobby Ryan, Kyle Turris and others may be able to help this story reach into May and beyond.

Prediction: Senators in 7

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    Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

    The Ottawa Senators lack experience in important places, but the sheer number of impact kids makes this an entirely different team than we saw in the first half of the season. Veterans like Erik Karlsson and Kyle Turris have been joined by several quality kids, and the result is a new, stronger team with scoring depth and role players in abundance.

    The Montreal Canadiens have the best goalie in the game and one of the best defensemen in P.K. Subban. They are led up front by quality scorers like Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec. The Canadiens do not boast a roster with tremendous depth beyond their major stars, and unless they receive surprising secondary scoring, they will lose a close series in seven games.