The sun is out, the snow is melting, the birds are singing, the BBQ’s are lit, and the smell of manure is in the air…Welcome to spring in Montreal! Of course it wouldn’t be spring in this fine city, without some good ol’ playoff hockey, and it starts tonight!
Your Montreal Canadiens just wrapped up one of their most successful seasons…EVER! Yes, you read that right. If you look at purely wins (a solid 50 that hits like a Labbat 50) and points (110 points and the second best total in the entire league), this iteration of the Habs would appear to be worthy of holding up against some of the franchise’s greatest teams. But alas, this is 2015 and not 1975; no one is rushing to grab the paper just to check the standings, or see who is leading the league in goals. We live in the age of information, and we are buried alive in different stats that strip away any perception of a team and leave it a smoldering carcass of shortcomings, deficiencies, and with the stink of failure.
I’m not going to rehash the stats. All we need to know is that the Habs enter the playoffs as one of the poorest possession teams; they don’t generate shots towards the net. As a result, they don’t score a lot of even strength goals. Generally speaking, being good at these stats have a very, very strong correlation to playoff success.
Now I’ve been accused many times of being a hater, even though I bleed bleu-blanc-rouge, I’m a Chicken Little fan who never believes in the team. Now I’m not going to sit here and say I haven’t picked against the Habs. Two years ago, I had Ottawa beating us in round 1. Last year, I picked Boston to beat us in round 2. I’ve spent most of this year cautioning my friends not to get overly excited about the team’s success because it was based largely on a stretch of games in which Carey Price transformed into Spiderman, after being giving super soldier serum, showered in gamma radiation, and yielding the mighty Mjolnir as a goalie stick.
With that in mind, you know which way I’m headed in my prediction on this opening round versus the Ottawa Senators. I’m going straight for the jugular here and will say Ottawa wins in 6 games.
Why Mr. Genius blogger who knows everything?
Here’s why kids.
Despite Ottawa’s slow start this has been a completely different team since David Cameron took over; since Marc Methot returned from injury; and since the emergence of Andrew Hammond from career AHLer to the hottest goaltender in the universe over the last 25 game (and McDonald’s icon). Ottawa trumps the Habs across the board on most possession/shot stats. While they have definitely had their share of puck luck going 20-4-4 in their last 28 games; make no mistake about it, this is an exceptional team, with great talent, hot goaltending, and good coaching. When we add the fact that the offensively challenged Habs are going to be without their #1 sniper, who is also one of their best penalty killers, and a team leader…I’m already on the fence here but without Pacioretty I’m really not getting the warm and fuzzies about the Habs chances.
Fine Mr. Super handsome know it all blogger, what’s the point of writing this blog then? Just go live in Ottawa, you traitor!
Take it easy kids.
Here is why I’m writing this today, because I am a Habs fan, and because there is a lot about this team that I like, and that I believe in. So I’m going to sit here and give myself 5 reasons why I think Montreal can win this series.
Ottawa has been in survival mode for about 20-25 games now. Once it became clear to them they had a shot; they’ve been laying it out on the line every game. Montreal has felt secure about their playoff position for weeks now, while there have been some important games here and there with respect to playoff seeding; you can argue that they have taken their foot off the pedal somewhat – even Carey Price has looked mortal over his last 4 games. Of course this has created mass panic within the halls of Hab fandom, because…that’s what Montrealers do…they panic. But the Habs have had games this year which they have played well (…at least for stretches of the game), and we all know what Carey Price is capable of doing when he’s dialed in. You can look at the Habs and confidently say “this team can kick it into another gear.” Can you say the same for Ottawa? Their play been inspired over the last 4 to 6 weeks, with rookies stepping up, and everyone playing hard. It’s safe to say they have used a significant amount of gas to get to this point. Will all that momentum they created carry them through the playoffs despite depleted energy levels, or will they run out of steam and finally come back down to earth?
I’m not really looking for advantage here as this section is more of an emotional, intangible part of the game. While it’s become custom to analyze everything and anything, it’s easy to forget that these guys are humans. Ottawa has had their share of emotional moments this year, most recently yesterday, when their assistant coach, Mark Reeds, passed away after a battle with cancer. They have also been dealing all season with the knowledge that their franchise’s leader: Bryan Murray, is also battling terminal cancer. There’s a lot of emotional weight that the Ottawa players can dig deep into in order draw intrinsic motivation in those tough moments. As for the Habs, recently Elmer Lach passed away. He was the oldest living player left in the whole NHL, not just the Habs. A hall of famer, his number resides in the rafters along with another great that we also lost this year. I wrote about Jean Beliveau when he passed. He moved many people to do the same. His legacy is intertwined with this franchise and his passing also touched every player who wears that CH logo over their chest. It took a few years for the Ghosts of the forum to make it to the Bell Center. This year they received two greats from not only the club’s history, but this city’s history.
“To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold high.”
Ottawa fans like to highlight the playoff match up two seasons ago when Ottawa beat Montreal in 5 games. That’s fine, and while that series ended up being one sided, most people forget that the Habs dominated game 1 of that series, and Ottawa won on the back of an exceptional performance from Craig Anderson. That series cannot be discussed without noting Gryba’s hit on and attempt to decapitate Lars Eller, who was the hottest player on the team, and was centering the best line on the team at that time. It changed the whole complexion of the series. Another factor that goes unmentioned by the Ottawa faithful is that their was unceremoniously beaten in 5 by the Pittsburgh in the following series. The following season Ottawa didn’t even make the playoffs. Last year the Habs made the Eastern conference finals sweeping an injured Tampa Bay team, upsetting the Bruins in 7, and then stretching the Rangers to 6 games, despite playing 90% of that series with their 3rd string goaltender. Habs bottom 6 is made up of character guys, who know the stakes in the playoffs, and every year it seems like someone steps up. Ottawa’s success this year has been driven in large part by young players like Lazar, Stone, and most notably Hammond. None of these guys have played in the NHL playoffs; none of them have been in an atmosphere like the Bell Center.
Despite a better record and some stretches almost equivalent to Ottawa’s 20-4-4 (17 ROW) run (the Habs had a stretch where they went 18-8-2 in 28 games (16 ROW)), the Habs seem to be playing the role of underdog. Ottawa’s hot stretch into the playoffs, as well as the elevated play of Hammond in nets, and Stone up front have propelled Ottawa ahead of the Habs in many of the fans’ and experts’ minds (mine included apparently). If I’m Therrien, I’m playing this fact up, I’m playing the “no one believes in us” card. I’m playing up the fact that people think Karrlsson is better than P.K. Subban, I’m telling Galchenyuk and Gallagher that the only young players being discussed in this series are Pageau, Lazar, and Stone. I’m looking at Plekanec and Markov and telling them no one is talking about these two long time Habs that have been instrumental in their success,. Finally I’m looking at Carey Price, and saying to him with a straight face, that “there are people out there…that genuinely think…that Andrew Hammond is better than you.” The Habs need to feel and play like they have something to prove, and at the same time, play like they have nothing to lose. That’s how Ottawa’s been playing for the last 6 weeks. Now Ottawa has everything to lose. Let’s drop the puck.
5) Carey Price
It’s amazing that even after the season Carey Price put together, he still has doubters. Because his last 4 games were “ordinary” (by the way he won 3 of the 4) that he somehow has regressed to a point in which he will be thoroughly outplayed in the playoffs. Look Carey will be hard pressed to repeat his performance for a section of this season; a stretch of 30 some odd games in which his save percentage was north of 95% and he didn’t allow more than 2 goals in a single game. It’s unheard of, and almost impossible to sustain. Here is the thing though, he can do it over 2 to 3 games, he may be able to do it over 5 to 7 games. Carey Price can steal a series, or two, or three. The hope, of course,is he doesn’t have to. The hope is the Habs figure out how to get that extra goal; whether it’s someone stepping up, or the power play coming to life. On the flip side, Andrew Hammond will never be as scrutinized as he will be starting right now. Pierre Mcguire brought up a great point on the radio this week that this will be the first time in his career that an NHL team will be 110% focused on scouting and evaluating him. Prior to this, Hammond was an undrafted, career minor leaguer. Even teams that signed him didn’t scout him much as they did so with no intention of having him in the big leagues. Andrew Hammond has been one of the best stories in the NHL so far, but he’s about to face his biggest challenge. He’s about to do that while staring across the ice at the best goaltender in the world. People are rushing to pick Ottawa, due to their recent streak; they are a trendy pick to make it out of the East. They’ll have to face Carey Price and beat him 4 out of 7 games. That’s a tough mountain to climb for any club, and if the Habs give Carey any kind of support, this may actually be the one sided series that some people are expecting but in the favor of the Habs.
So all that said…have I changed my mind? Look playoffs ultimately come down to goaltending. But the idea of a goaltender “stealing” a series is the wrong approach. If your goaltender outright steals a series, then it means you played poorly as a team. To allow a goaltender to “win” a series, you need some support, even if you’re outmatched (see Habs vs. Bruins last year). Ottawa is not a flash in the pan team, and they have a more than capable backup should the Hamburgular finally go stale.
Despite the five reasons listed above – when I look at everything, my biggest concern is the lack of power in our power–play, certain match ups (I wish Therrien would sit Emelin), Therrien in general (and his coaching strategy), and the injury to Pacioretty….
…or Habs in 7!!
Go Habs go!!!