First Round Preview: Canadiens vs. Rangers

After a one year hiatus, the Montreal Canadiens are back in the Stanley Cup playoffs. While many of the Montreal Canadiens haters and naysayers will shake their heads and spout off about the Habs, the truth is, any warm-blooded Canadian knows the playoffs are simply just better when a franchise like the Canadiens are involved. It’s the same reason that despite the rivalry, I, for one, am happy that the Toronto Maple Leafs have made the playoffs this season. It’s good for Canada. It’s good for hockey, and it’s good for Canadian fans of hockey. 

Once again, the Canadiens find themselves in a match-up against an Original Six team. While the match-up with the Rangers lacks the regional intensity that the Leafs bring with them, or the incredible history and intensity that come with a Bruins match-up, the Rangers and Habs have had their fair share of memorable moments over the last few years.

There was this infamous moment – (cue Montrealers going crazy and throwing Molsons everywhere): 

Which led to this:

 

And finally this:


 

3 years ago, the Canadiens had an improbable run to the conference finals until they ran into the Rangers and, more specifically, until Chris Krieder ran into Carey Price. I’m not going to sit here and suggest that the Habs would have defeated the Rangers with Carey Price in nets, but when you consider the series went six games with Dustin Tokarski in nets, you’d have to think they would have had a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1993. That Rangers team was very, very good – better than most people gave them credit for (including this fool). 3 years later and they’re still very, very good; however, they are different than that team that beat the Habs in 2014. 

 So let’s not dwell on the past, and focus on the present, and near future. In breaking down this first round match up, I decided to focus on 5 factors I believe will give everyone reading this (hi Roy!) a more clear picture on who to look for, what to look for, why to look for it, and who has the advantage.

1) Offense at Even Strength:

At first glance, this would appear to favor the Rangers; they feature a fast and deep squad of forwards, and mobile defensemen led by Ryan MacDonagh. The Canadiens have had goal scoring problems for most of the season and their most able puck-moving defenseman is a 106 year old Andrei Markov. Lo and behold, when you look at the numbers, you’ll see that at 5v5, the Rangers scored 14 more goals than the Habs throughout the season.

Before all the chicken little Habs fans out there begin to slide open their windows and climb out on the ledge, it is worth noting that when you consider goals scored at 5v5-close (close play is when the game is tied within or within one goal in the first and second periods, and tied in the third) the Rangers only have 2 more goals than the Habs on the season. Consider as well that the Rangers scored 7 more empty net goals than the Habs and this offensive advantage is not so stark.

When you factor in possession stats it leans even heavier in the Habs’ favor. Regardless of who coached the team this season, the Canadiens have been one of the best possession teams in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Rangers have been middling at best, however, where they make up for the lack of shots towards the opponent net by capitalizing on their high danger scoring chances: this is reflective in their above league average shooting percentage. Furthermore, they are one of the best teams in the NHL at generating high danger scoring chances, through pre-shot movement. (slot passes, east-west scoring chances).

While Habs can take solace in knowing that captain Max Pacioretty is the best offensive player at even strength on either team, the Rangers boast more balanced scoring from top to bottom. Their forward group is led by every Habs fan’s favorite Ranger: Chris Kreider. Both teams have even strength scoring dynamos in Michael Grabner and Paul Byron, but the Rangers have gotten some good offense from their rear guards, even though their possession numbers aren’t great. This is an area that Montreal struggles in once you look past Andrei Markov and Jeff Petry.

Advantage: New York Rangers. It’s very close, yet the Rangers’ spread out offense, give them an edge even though Montreal is better at possession and shot generation. This is in theme with most NY/MTL discussion I’ve had…it’s close, but New York bagels are better, but give me Montreal smoked meat every time…. 

 
2) Defense at Even Strength:

While fans always huff and puff about goal scoring, the objective of hockey isn’t to just score as many goals as possible. It’s to score more goals than your opponents; a simple and obvious act that often gets lost amongst the hand-wringing and complaining. As detailed above, the Rangers seem to boast more depth than the Habs. However, defense is a team game, and the Habs worked hard this season to become an elite defensive team, often at the sacrifice of potential offense. The bottom line is this shift in strategy worked. The Canadiens were the 3rd best defensive team in the NHL at 5v5, while the Rangers were 18th. The Canadiens goal differential at 5v5 was +24, while the Rangers were at +14. At even strength, the Canadiens boast the two top defenseman in all the NHL with regards to goals against. No other defenseman in the league allowed less goals against at even strength than the immortal Andrei Markov and the man mountain Shea Weber. The Habs’ system champions possession and defensive responsibility from their forwards – this allows for less shots against, and less chances against. While any line with Kreider will drive offense towards the oppositions net, the aforementioned Markov and Weber will be standing in his way. Injuries have hurt the Rangers this year, but they simply don’t have the skill on defense to drive possession out of their zone beyond MacDonagh. As a result, they focus on creating turnovers and blocking shots in order to counter attack, and take advantage of the team speed.

Finally, it helps having the best goaltender in the league to back up your D, but more on that later…

Advantage: Montreal Canadiens. For the most part, the Habs one-upped Trump by building a wall at their blue line before he could erect one along the Mexican border. 

3) Special Teams:

The Habs started out the season with one of the hottest power plays in the league. Armed with Weber’s canon of a shot from the point, they were scoring goals and leaving traumatized goalies in their wake. However, that was a long time ago, and the Habs’ power play limps into the playoffs without much success. Overall, they finished the season with a respectable 19.7% success rate; however, that has plummeted to under 14% down the stretch. As teams have adapted to the Habs “one trick pony play” of setting up a Weber slapshot, there’s been a shocking lack of creativity and east-west scoring chances. Considering they have one of the best goal scorers in the league on their team, you’d think they’d find a way to get Pacioretty more shots. On the other hand, the Rangers have hummed along at an average of 20.2% all season and have been on fire down the stretch at over 30% success rate. 30%! You can’t blame Habs fans for heading to their closest Belle Province, stumbling into the kitchen, locating the piping hot gravy pot, and dunking their faces in it. Once again, all you fantastic chicken littles, I’ll ask you to put the gravy pot down, and continue to read on.

The power play is only one aspect of special teams – the other is the penalty kill. I’ve never been shy about stating my lack of belief in Michel Therrien as a great NHL coach. Nothing has been more indicative of that than the Habs’ penalty kill, pre and post Therrien. Julien has instilled an excellent penalty kill strategy that has seen the Habs’ penalty kill ranking rise from 22nd under Therrien, to 14th overall to finish the season. Over the last month of the season, the Habs had the 3rd best penalty kill league-wide. Meanwhile, the Rangers had the 3rd worst penalty kill over that same span and finished the season 19th league wide.

Neither team generates a ton of power play opportunities, which works in the Habs’ favour. Furthermore, the Habs were one of the least penalized teams in the league under Julien. The ability to avoid taking penalties will be vital due the potentcy of the Rangers’ powerplay.

 Advantage: New York Rangers, but only because in a New York (power play) minute anything can change. If the Rangers fail to draw penalties, this could lean towards the Habs. (Yes, I’m sitting squarely in the fence on this one.)

4) The X-Factors:

For the Rangers, the aforementioned power play is an obvious x-factor. While his peak goal-scoring days are behind him, Rick Nash was still tied for the team lead in power play goals and has the ability to put the puck in the net, the Rangers will need him if they hope get to Price. JT Miller and Kevin Hayes give the Rangers  scoring depth and create the offensive balance the Habs seem to lack. However, the key x-factor is Mika Zibanejad. A player familiar with the Habs from his Senator days, Zibanejad put up 37 points in 56 games. He will be tasked with slowing down the Habs top line, while chipping in with some offense. If he can add that extra layer of depth to an already deep lineup, it will add significant pressure on the Habs’ defense corps. 

As far as the Habs are concerned, they have a certain 4th line left winger that has been the talk of the town before this playoff series kicks off. Alex Galchenyuk began this season as the Habs’ number one center. He led the team in scoring when he sustained a knee injury that knocked him out of action for 6 weeks. Upon his return, he resumed the top center role, but seemed to struggle defensively. Although he was driving offense at a high rate, his defensive mishaps caused him to slide down the line up, eventually ending up on the wing. To be clear, Galchenyuk is the Canadiens’ best offensive center and he’s playing on the 4th line…on the wing. He may the most obvious x-factor in playoffs history. If he can harness all that talent and take advantage of his playing time, it will add a dimension to the Habs attack that would have the Rangers scrambling. At 22 years old, Galchenyuk is still young enough to develop into that top line player, but it isn’t a stretch to call this the first major fork in his career. 

Advantage: New York Rangers. They simply have more x-factors. A greater potential for their depth make an impact, including a guy I write about in the next section. (How’s that for cliffhanger? Not bad, right?)

5) Goaltending

For the longest time, the Habs were defined by their goalie and best player: Carey Price. Too often, during the Therrien era, Price was forced to support a leaky ship and force it through rough waters. It all came to head this year when the Habs’ penalty kill went into the tank. While his even strength save percentage was largely unaffected, his save percentage during the penalty kill plummeted. So what happened to the man who has been widely regarded as the best goalie in the world for the last 3 years? Did he forget how to play for a month? Did he throw in the towel? Well, the question was answered when Julien took over and shored up the penalty kill. After weeks of frustration, Price could focus on being the best goalie in the world, and since the coaching change, he has done just that. 

As for the Rangers, they have their own icon in nets. King Henrik Lundqvist has been one of the best goalies in the NHL for the better part of the decade. However, at the age of 34,  Lundqvist has shown signs of slowing down. He put up the lowest save percentage of his career at .910, and was largely outplayed by his back up Antti Raanta. Having outlined the Rangers’ penalty kill struggles above, I decided to take a look at the goalies 5v5 save percentage. Sure enough, there was Price, sitting amongst the league leaders. When I lowered the threshold of games played, Raanta even showed up in the top ten. Lundqvist did not rank in the top 20 – astonishing, considering he has been the symbol of goaltending consistency over the last decade. Finally, I decided to look at save percentage with respect to high danger chances, as this is a good indicator of the goalies that can make the tough saves. Once again, Raanta bested Lundqvist. Granted Raanta played only 30 games compared to the 57 for Lundqvist, but it’s pretty clear that Raanta may serve as another x-factor in this series if the King stumbles. Lundqvist has been a competitor and elite athlete his whole career. It is unlikely he will let a difficult season hinder his desire and need to excel in the playoffs. However, what the mind and heart want, the body sometimes cannot follow. Considering his well documented trouble at the Bell Center, the Rangers’ coaches will have to keep a close eye on their franchise goalie. 

Oh…I know what you’re thinking: “Hey Z…who led the league in the high danger save percentage??” Well that would be one, Carey Price. 

Advantage: Montreal Canadiens. Carey Price has dominated the Rangers throughout his career. While many people are saying he was out to get revenge on Kreider, my guess is he simply was upset he never got a chance to compete during that conference final. He will be hell bent on winning this series, and likely to be more focused than ever. He represents a daunting task for the Rangers but not one that’s impossible to beat. 

Final Verdict:

I’ll be honest, before I started this preview, I had assumed there couldn’t be two more evenly matched up teams in the first round. However, after finishing my analysis, I was surprised to find out that the Habs were largely superior to the Rangers in every possession metric I could find. Now, I’ve discussed the use of analytics on this site before, and I am a big proponent of using them to gauge a team’s chance of success. It won’t be 100% what I base my judgement on, but it’ll certainly influence any decision I would make. While the Rangers scored more goals, the reality is hockey is not just about scoring goals and but also about keeping them out. This is where the Canadiens have a marked advantage over the Rangers. In fact, only 2 teams in the NHL allowed fewer goals than the Habs 5v5. As a result, the Habs have a superior GF% (ratio of GF/ GA as a percentage) than the Rangers. The Rangers have gotten sub-par goaltending from Lundqvist and have largely survived with a dangerous powerplay, and an above-league average shooting percentage. The Canadiens seem to be at a disadvantage on paper – they played in the weaker division, lack the scoring depth, and the power play has struggled to generate any additional offense. However, they control the puck and generate lots of shots towards the opponent’s net. Since the coaching change, they have defended at an elite rate, and when it’s all said and done, they have Carey Price in nets. If Lundqvist can turn back the clock, or Raanta can pull off a Halakian effort, I can see this series stretch to 6 or 7 and going the Rangers way. The Rangers are a very good team and can get to Price is the Habs defensive structure breaks down and then begin to allows the Rangers to cycle the puck and set uo their offense. But I’m betting against that; I’m betting on a razor sharp focused Price; and finally I’m betting that the Habs close this series out by winning 4 hard-fought and close games. 

How many games will it take? Honestly I have no idea because every game will be a battle. It could easily go 7, but I’ll go out on the limb and say Habs in 5 with a Carey Price shutout to win the series at home.

Go Habs Go. 

Never too Late.

It is safe to say the the Habs’ season comes down to tonight’s game 3 match up versus the Tampa Bay Lightning.

While losing tonight doesn’t officially end the season, going down 3-0 to a very good Lightning team will be a death blow.

While I picked the Lightning to win in 6, it seems like even more of an uphill battle for the Habs to drag it to 6 games. While we can write off game 2 as a complete debacle, the real gut punch game was the first one. The Habs played an excellent game only to come up short in double overtime. A win in that game changes the complexion of the series and perhaps none of the undisciplined behavior that marred game 2 happens.

We can’t change the past, but we can affect the future. As such I’ve outlined 5 factors I think will swing some of the momentum in their favor tonight...While it seems like it’s a little too late for any of these changes to really make a difference – when you’re back is against the wall, you either come out swinging for your life or your turtle and fade away.

1) Changing the lineup:

 

By all accounts, Bergevin attempted to bring in a top 6 winger at the trade deadline. While he did manage to nab Petry to help the blue line, he came short of acquiring a Thomas Vanek like forward up front. At the same time, I think Vanek’s play during last year’s conference finals run left somewhat of a bitter taste in Begevin’s mouth. As a result, it may have had something to do with his focus on getting gritty, bottom 6 players. While this hasn’t really panned out; Torrey Mitchell, at the very least, has proven to be an effective 4th line center, and an important defensive zone face off man.  The fact remains: the Habs can’t score. Therrien has tried various different lineups throughout the year without yielding any significant results. There is no disputing that Max Pacioretty has been the Habs’ best forward this year, he led them in goals and pointsTherrien has tagged him with frequent sidekick David Desharnais, and he is currently playing with Tomas Plekanec. It’s been fairly obvious, that Lars Eller has been the Habs best center lately, not just in the playoffs but down the stretch. Yet Therrien has not made the move to put Pacioretty on Eller’s wing. Perhaps having all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea, but at this point, with your season on the lineit may be time to bust out this pairing. 

Other than that, we have to consider the curious case of Alex Galchenyuk. He played nine games at center earlier in the year; he scored 9 points in 9 games including a hat trick. That was his best stretch of the season, yet he was either removed from the role by Therrien due to his defensive play, or as some have suggested, he requested to be removed and put back on the wing. Perhaps the responsibility of playing center was too much for him. Once again with your season on the line, you need to go all in.

Ultimately Therrien is not known for his creativity or risk taking, he knows he has an ace in Price. So he has built a conservative, methodical strategy up front used to exploit his greatest strength – his goaltender. But with the Habs having scored only 7 goals in the last 5 gameseven the staunchest supporter needs to admit that something‘s got to give here.  While we all wait and sit patiently for a power play that has been dormant for a year and half. It would be nice to see the coach roll the dice with some brand new line up combinations in hopes of jump starting a moribund offense.

 

2) Beating Ben Bishop:

 

Bishop is now 12-1-2 in his career versus the Montreal Canadiens. He has a SV % north of 95%, and has looked more like Carey Price, than Carey Price. Prust’s attempts to throw Bishop off his game are well documented, and it seems that the Habs in general have gone out of their way to get in his crease, knock him over, and take their shots. Here’s the problem; it isn’t working. First of all; Bishop isn’t even his real name. His real name is The Mountain and he’s 6’10and weighs 400 pounds. In all seriousness, Bishop is 6”7 and 215 pounds, he is imposing physically and most likely unaffected by the Habs small(ish) forwards. Second of all; he’s still dominating – other than flubbing a routine glove save, our forwards have no goals through two games. He weighs so heavily on the heads of the Habs’ shooters that they either miss the net while going for the perfect shot, or they shoot it right at the logo in his chest. Bishop is in a zone, there is no denying it.  The best way to beat a hot goalie is to capitalize on the power play – which is what the Lightning did in game twoIn lieu of that you need to get some lucky bounces, now while luck is something of an intangible force which you can’t affect, you can affect the bounces part. Instead of focusing on running Bishop, Habs players need to be looking for deflections and rebounds. While Bishop is enormous and covers so much net, he’s still a little jerky in his movement, and does give up plenty of rebounds. The message to the defensemen should be to keep pucks low and make sure they get through traffic. They need to do away with the high slap shotsThe only way to score is to get pucks to the net, not past the net. Bishop is not invincible; cracking him gives the Habs the best chance of winning.

 

3) Play keep-away:

 

After Detroit almost beat Tampa Bay in 7, I was upset that we had to match up with Tampa instead of Detroit, but happy because I felt Detroit had provided the Habs with a good blueprint on how to stifle and frustrate the Lightning. It started in nets, where Mzarek was able to steal a game, and play at high level throughout. I felt good about this since the Habs have a “fairly good” goaltenderI was also impressed with how the Red Wings adapted after suffering a barrage of shots in the first two games. They began to cut off the neutral zone, and control the puck. The Lightning were the highest scoring team in the league, and they reached that level with a mediocre power play. At even strength, this team is freewheeling and fast skating. They love to bring the puck through the neutral zone, and carry it into the offensive zone. At that point their superior fore-check takes over and generates chances for all its myriad of offensive weapons. The Red Wings put a stop to that for the most part, by trapping them in the neutral zone, and forcing them to go outside. They followed this up by having the defenseman move the puck up quickly up the boards and not allowing the Lightning to set up any sort of fore-check. The best adjustment was Detroit realized the best way to neutralize the best offense in the NHL is to take away the puck. The Red Wings took the play to the Lightning, instead of dumping and chasing (a staple of Therrien); they used their skill carry the puck in and cycle against some of the slower Lightning defensemen. They did to the Lighting what the Lightning normally do to their opponents. In fairness to Therrien and the Habsthey did a good job of this this in game 1 and through the first ten minutes of game 2 before the wheels fell off. But this is not an inherent strategy of the Habs, and when the wrong personnel is on the ice, it’s impossible to generate the type of sustained pressure and cycle needed to control the puck.

 

4) Discipline/Special Teams;

 

I tied these two together because of the game two debacle. As mentioned above the Habs played an excellent first ten minutes of game twoWell that momentum was grounded,due to some selfish and undisciplined penalties taken by some of the Habs veterans. This type of behavior continued throughout the game to the tune of four Lightning power play goals. This problem was compounded by another “O fer showing on the Habs power play (now an unbelievable 1 for 26 in these playoffs). At this point we are beating a dead horse, but the special teams play has got to be better. The Habs have no hope of beating this team 5 on 5, so they need to create that imbalance on special teams. Their stupidity in game two may have woken up a Lightning power play, however I suspect that it was a blip on the radar. Tampa has struggled with their power play all year,and the Habs’ penalty kill has been good for the most part. At the very least, the Habs should be conscious of playing a tight and discipline game, and not affording the Lightning any chances to find out whether or not their power play is really back or not. At the same time the Habs need their power play to wake up – one of the biggest critiques of Therrien is that he is stubborn and unimaginative, and the power play is the best example of that. After a year and a half of stagnation: the Habs continue to do the same thing game in and game out. There no fluid movement, no cuts, no short passes – everything is long and sweeping: from one side of the ice to the other. All of this in hopes of a P.K. Subban blast from the point. The problem is EVERYONE knows this is coming, and yet the Habs persist with this model. As mentioned already, the Habs need to concentrate on getting pucks to the net, and look for tips and rebound. While some have suggested changing the whole philosophy of the power play, I think it’s a little too late at this point of the season. So shorten some of the passing lanes and look to get pucks on Bishop and pray to the hockey gods.



That’s all I got , but if all else fails…well….


 


Go Habs Go.

 

‘Sens’ing a Disturbance in the Habs Force.

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 thenJust 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.

 

1) Rest

 

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?

 

2) X-Factors

 

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 leaderBryan 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 Habsrecently 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.”

 

3) Experience

 

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 Grybas 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. 

 

4) Underdog?

 

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 threeThe 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 streakthey 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 powerplay, certain match ups (I wish Therrien would sit Emelin), Therrien in general (and his coaching strategy), and the injury to Pacioretty….


So…I’ll have to stick with my prediction Ottawa in 6….

 

…or Habs in 7!!

 

Go Habs go!!!

 

A Rink Of Dreams

Allow me to take a break from recapping, discussing even strength metrics or advanced statistics. To take a break from dissecting the players, the coaches, wondering went wrong, and what to do next. Allow me to just enjoy the moment.

At the end of every Habs playoff game, I get a phone call. Most of the conversations go something like this, give or take a few details:

Me: Hey Dad, great/bad game tonight.
Dad: Yeah, they played well/tried hard/played like khara (aka: crap).
Me: Yeah! Price/Pacioretty/P.K were amazing/soft/sucked.
Dad: It was a big win/tough loss.
Me: I’m excited/depressed.
Dad: Me too, let’s hope they can keep it going/bounce back in the next one.
Me: Yalla Pops, have a good night and go Habs go!

My Dad calls me almost as soon as the final horn sounds. I began to look forward to having that short conversation more than the game itself. You see, as you get older you learn more about yourself, more about life, and more about what is really important. I love the Habs, and that love was instilled in me by watching hours and hours of games with my father while I was growing up.

During this playoff run, while I was obsessing about various superstitions (Which hat to wear? What seat was I sitting in during the previous win? Do I put my left shoe on first? Do I wear shoes?? Did I pray to Zeus or Odin last game??! Should I breathe at all for 5 hours??!!), I was forgetting that the game is just that…a game. Ultimately, given all our superstitions, complaining, and over analyzing, nothing we do has a bearing on the games…that the best part of it all is that you can share it with people – whether it’s strangers at a bar, a random honk in traffic at Habs fans cheering on the sidewalk, meeting up with friends, or speaking with your father at the end every game. During the Habs’ current playoff run, I got so caught up in the x’s and o’s, in the routine, that I had lost sight of the whole reason I started this blog in the first place.

Six years ago I wrote a note that would eventually become the first real post on this blog. I posted the “The Pursuit of Habbyness” last year after numerous years of prodding and encouragement from friends to do so. It wasn’t meant as anything other than a spontaneous feeling that I wrote down to show my love for the Habs and my sometimes extreme support of the team, but it also spoke to the deeper meaning that the team can have on a city, creating bonds between people, and how the love of sports and a team can be passed down from father to son.

Two days ago, the Montreal Canadiens were eliminated from the 2014 playoffs. After defying the odds and fighting back from the brink elimination multiple times, the Habs ran out of gas – their bodies unable to to do what they so desperately wanted in their hearts. Watching the players hang their heads as they skated off the ice for a final time, I was overcome by emotion. I mean, yeah, I was sad but I was also damn proud of this team. I called my Dad before he could call me this time. I just needed to speak to with him to talk about the game and to tell him that although the Habs may have played their worst game of the playoffs, there was nothing to be ashamed of – they gave it their all during the playoffs. As always, my Dad was direct (“they sucked tonight”) but focused on some positives (“that Tokkharinski is pretty good!”) and finally said that it was a good run and he enjoyed it. So did I, and so did countless other Habs fans in this city and across the world. The Habs just had their most electrifying post season run in 20 plus years. That’s an amazing thing to be a part of as a fan. To be in this city for the last 6 weeks was inspiring and provided a glimmer of hope for what Montreal could be like…should be like. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a number of fans and media not waste too much time lamenting the loss, pointing fingers, whining, or launching complaints at certain players. Instead they applauded the Habs for their effort and success, for giving this city something to unite over; for providing, both old and new fans with so many new memories that will remind us of why we love this team, and why Montreal is the best hockey city in the world.

For all the fans who are unable to get over it yet; those fretting all our off season moves; those who still want to dwell on a failed clearing pass or missed assignment; let it go. Allow that sadness or disappointment to transform into appreciation and hope for the future. Just remind yourselves of why you watch the games. Yes, you always want your team to win of course, but it’s also to enjoy the game – to see your friends, to sit down with your parents or children, and spend a few hours with them while watching the game. Remind yourselves about new people you’ve met during this playoff run; strangers become friends; that cute girl or guy in the Koivu jersey maybe becomes a boyfriend or girlfriend. Remind yourselves of all the young Habs fans who don’t think Gallagher or Desharnais are too small, who don’t think Price or P.K. have a weakness, who wanted the Habs to win because they’re the “good guys” and the good guys always win in cartoons…and then remind yourselves that you used to think that way once too. I know it’s hard. I’m prone to falling into the despair trap, and during the games, I forgot to breathe, and paced so much at the local bar that I had to warn people not to fall into the trench I created. But hockey is not life – it only seems that way in this city. And like many other things in life, if you aren’t enjoying it…you aren’t doing it right.

If you don’t want to do that, if you don’t want to let the moment sweep you away and enjoy the ride for what it is…then think about this. Eller, Galchenyuk, Gallagher, Pacioretty, Price and Subban are all under the age of 26. If you want, you can throw in Beaulieu, Tinordi, Bournival, Tokarski, even Weise into that mix. Think about the deep prospect pool the Habs have built (I’m personally excited about De La Rose). Think about how the Habs got to within two wins of the Stanley Cup finals! This was a team that some analysts predicted wouldn’t make the playoffs! A few analysts picked them to lose to the Lightning in the first round! Almost ALL analysts (and one awesome blogger) picked them to lose to the Bruins! The future is bright, not just on the ice but in the offices as well. Bergervin and his team should also be commended and listed as another reason for Habs fans everywhere to feel good about the future of this team.

I’m excited, and I hope that the next decade gives my son and countless other kids the chance to build their own memories, and develop their own love for the game and the Montreal Canadiens…with a little help from their fathers of course.

Go Habs Go. Le Canadiens forever.

 

Hubris, Despair and (Fool’s) Hope.

As the seconds ticked off during the end of game seven in the Habs/Bruins series I found myself standing alone, off to the side, in a bar full of rowdy, deliriously happy Habs’ fans as they counted down the seconds…Six!..Five!..Four!…

I immediately started thinking of the next round: “The Rangers? We can beat the Rangers! Doesn’t Lundqvist struggle in Montreal? Wasn’t their power play 0 for 30 in these playoffs? Didn’t they get shutout in consecutive games versus the Penguins? We have home ice advantage! We can make the Stanley Cup final!”

As I finished high-fiving 39 different people and chest bumping one unfortunate soul who was smaller than David Desharnais and not prepared for my beer fueled, high energy leap. I was guilty of something about 99.7% of Habs fans were guilty of following our hard earned victory over our chief rivals from Boston. I was guilty of hubris and would pay dearly for it.

After catching some grief for choosing the Bruins over the Habs, I stood by my assertion that Bruins were a better team and the Habs simply outplayed them when it mattered most. Carey Price was better than Tukka Rask, and as I mentioned in my previous entry, whoever had the better goaltender would most likely emerge victorious. So in that respect I was right. Now given the effort I put into analyzing the previous series, one would assume I’d take my time to study this match up. However I was suffering from hubris and the “beating Boston” hangover and did no research on the Rangers. Armed with no substantial knowledge on the Habs’ opponent, I made the bold proclamation that the Habs would win in six games. I felt confident that although the Rangers had one of the best goaltenders in the world in Henrik Lundqvist, the Habs had one of their own in Carey Price. While the Rangers had acquired Martin St. Louis, who happens to be one of the the most clutch players over the last decade. The Habs had P.K Subban who was developing a reputation for showing up in big games.

About an hour before Game 1 on Saturday afternoon, I was looking up stats on the NHL website (some people read, others write or draw…I look up stats on my down time – I blame fantasy sports). I was shocked to see that the Rangers were the top even strength team through the first two rounds of the playoffs, I felt better when I noticed the Habs were second. However, just to further assuage myself I looked up the regular season stats. Once again, to my shock (and creeping feeling of horror), the Rangers were the better team at even strength during the regular season as well. It got me thinking – what else was I wrong about? Surely a team that went 0 for 30 on the power play in the playoffs wouldn’t have a better regular season power play than the Habs?…Guess what? The Rangers not only had a better power play during the regular season, their penalty kill was slightly better as well (and 3rd best in the league). Woah, hold on a second. – what the puck is going on here? As I nervously looked over more stats. my dread grew: The Rangers had a better goals against? The Rangers had more goals for? Ok surely the advanced metrics would favor the Habs, after all they finished ahead of the Rangers in the standings! Alas, the Rangers were top ten in both Fenwick For percentage and Corsi For percentage, well ahead of the Habs in either category…

(So I assume most of you have seen Usual Suspects…if not, then you’re missing out and you should stop reading and go rent it immediately. For the rest of you, remember the scene at the end;  when Chaz Palminteri is figuring out that Kevin Spacey’s story is all made up, and he drops his coffee mug, and the f’n fax machine is going, and mother f’n Spacey is walking away and all of sudden his foot straightens out and he isn’t limping anymore and you realize he’s f’n Keyser Soze! The shock makes you go crazy and throw your coffee table at the TV. Then you start walking around, babbling to yourself, and tripping over nothing and rolling around the floor like you’re on fire…Well that’s how I felt when I looked up these statistics.)

…Suddenly “Habs in six” felt…shaky. I should have known better when I mentioned to a friend that although the Habs had been to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010, the win against the Bruins in game seven was their biggest victory since the Stanley Cup win of ’93. When a victory is that intense, there is bound to be a hangover. Unfortunately before the Habs could pop their Advil, and chug their Gatorade they were down 2-0 and on their way to receiving a 7-2 beat down in game one. Despite that and my suddenly shakier feeling, I felt as though the result was so extreme that there would be a correction and the Habs would come out hard in game two and earn a win. My hubris had crumbled away but I remained confident, despite discovering that the statistical analysis favored the Rangers, I felt that this Habs team and our goaltender had bounced back after a tough beat all season long. Then the news hit: Carey Price was out for the series. While all the fair weather fans quickly jumped off the bandwagon, and others lamented the Habs chances without their all world goaltender. I immediately thought of Carey. He’s had to put up with more BS than all the goaltenders in the league combined playing in this city, and for the most part it had not affected him or his game. This year he put it all together over a full season, winning the gold medal, silencing his critics who said he hadn’t won in the playoffs, and outplaying the probable Vezina winner. For his season to potentially end in injury is both sad and disappointing, not just for him and his fans, but for fans of hockey who wanted to witness a showdown between two of the best goaltenders in the world…

(Before anyone asks, I don’t think Krieder ran Price on purpose. He was clearly tripped and while he didn’t do much to stop himself or avoid Carey, it’s a hockey play. Yes, I’ve seen the videos. Yes, he plays a reckless style and has a history of crashing into goaltenders, but so do many other players in the league including Brendan Gallagher and Habs fans love for him for it. So fans need to let it go, move on, and stop the ridiculous “let’s run Henrik” talk.  It solves nothing, cheapens the game, and is discouraging overall).

…Without Carey, my confidence gave way to something worse than hubris…Despair. How could we win without our best player? The Habs came apart at the beginning of the third period in game one, and although down 4-1, they may have had a shot to make it close had they not taken some undisciplined penalties. While fans debated who should play in nets for game two, I felt indifferent towards either goaltender. When the dust settled on game two, the Habs were down 2-0 in the series. Although I felt as though the Habs carried the play for most of the game, the Rangers avoided our forecheck, had the puck luck and took advantage on the PP – my despair had reached peak levels. “Habs in six” was quickly becoming a “Rangers sweep” prediction. I did notice that game two saw Dustin Tokarski acquit himself well enough, and numerous Habs step up their game and provide a tremendous effort. Habs also dominated possession numbers, but here’s the thing about stats and advanced metrics – they’re rendered irrelevant when you face a hot goaltender. Henrik Lundqvist is a great goaltender, and he’s on a hot streak…

(You know that level in Angry Birds that you just can’t beat: that annoying green pig is hiding under 12 planks of wood, 29 sheets of glass, and he’s wearing a cowboy hat over a helmet made of adamantium. All you have left to get to him is a that little blue bird that breaks into 3 useless tiny birds. No matter how many times you try you just can’t get that stupid green pig. That how i felt during game two while watching the Habs try and score on Lundqvist. Especially in the third period when the Habs had 19 shots and several high quality chances but could not put one by the King.)

…Let’s face it; it seems hopeless at this point. The stats favor the Rangers; their future hall of fame goaltender is playing some of the best hockey of his career; and their power play has woken up. Consider also that the Habs have lost their best player to injury; that they lost both their home games; and that they are playing their 3rd string goaltender. One could safely assume that I would sink further into an abyss of despair and petition the league to call off the rest of the series. But I had an epiphany while writing about the Habs’ impending doom. I realized the pressure was off; no one expects the Habs to win anymore – just like that, the Habs became the underdog. Somehow, some way the Habs play better from this position. I took an informal poll of my friends, some coworkers, and one very skeptical stranger. The result was surprising: over 51% (17/33) of them believe the Habs will still win this series. In spite of everything being stacked against the Habs, more than half of the people I asked still believe in this team. I suspect most of them don’t believe with 100% certainty that the Habs will win but that a chance to win still exists, and where there is chance – there is hope. The fans won’t abandon their team and no matter what happens, that is pretty powerful stuff. I truly think that this attitude also permeates the Habs locker room. Even without Carey Price in net, the Habs are heading back to New York fully believing they can win game 3, and they’ll believe they can win game 4 and so on – one game at a time. This team will not give up and it will not surrender. While all the evil Hab haters are twisting their beards and and wringing their hands with devilish glee, the loyal followers and the unbiased observers know this team can rise to the challenge and has responded well to adversity in the past.

So I say…why give in to despair? I’m the fool who picked the Habs to lose to the Bruins, the fool who fell to hubris and despair, and I say why not hope? A fool’s hope is better than no hope at all.

It is so easy to give up and call it quits, but it wasn’t easy for Carey to win 34 games this year, it wasn’t easy for Pacioretty to score 39 goals, it wasn’t easy for 35 year old, Andrei Markov to block 180 shots and it certainly wasn’t easy beating the big bad Bruins. So why take the easy way out now? The Rangers are better, they had an equally difficult path and have overcome numerous obstacles. They are playing an all world goalie versus an AHL goalie, enjoy a significant home ice advantage, and have all the momentum…

…So what?

Habs in 7.

Go Habs Go.

The Rivalry

There are many great rivalries in sports…Boston Celtics vs. The Los Angeles Lakers, New York Yankees vs. The Boston Red Sox, Dallas Cowboys vs. everyone in their division. No disrespect to any of those sports or teams, but nothing is quite like a good old school hockey rivalry. While basketball and baseball breed rivals through familiarity – repeated games, long playoff series, etc… – and football breeds rivals through unbridled fan passion and the brutal physicality of the game, the only sports that brings all that together is hockey. While there have been great rivals in the annals of the NHL: from regional rivals like the Oilers vs. Flames, or Rangers vs. Devils; to old school rivals like the Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens or the Blackhawks vs. Red Wings; to rivals that were just emotion-based like the Avalanche vs. Red Wings or Flyers fans vs. Anger Management professionals; there is nothing like a good ol’ fashioned hockey rivalry to stoke any sports fan’s embers and spawn a great roaring fire of passion and fanaticism.

But…

There is one rivalry that stands above all the rest; one that melds the competitiveness that stems from regional proximity; one that is steeped deep in the history of the game; and one that seems to generate a more emotionally charged response than any other match up in NHL history and very few other match ups in sports history.

The Montreal Canadiens versus the Boston Bruins.

These two teams are set to meet for the 34th time in the NHL playoffs. The two teams have played each other more times, in both regular season play and the playoffs combined, than any other two teams in NHL history.

This is “The Rivalry”.

So without further ado (mainly because I procrastinated for 8 days in finalizing this, and as a result need to rush this)…

Here is my Habs vs. Bruins Round 2 NHL Playoff Match Up Preview Extravaganza!! (Trumpets sound)

The top 5 reasons that the Boston Bruins will win this series:

1) They’re the BEST damn team in the NHL:
When I say the best team, I’m going to strip away the special teams factor for a second and look at teams in their basic element: even strength.

Let’s review the facts. The Bruins were far and away the best even strength team in the league this year. They led the league in even strength scoring ratio of 1.53 (even strength goals for/against). The second closest team had a ratio of 1.39 (Anaheim Ducks). That’s a significant gap.

If that’s not proof enough, eight of the last ten Stanley Cup finalists finished in the top 10 in even strength scoring F/A and four of the past five Stanley Cup winners were top 10 in even strength scoring F/A (the only outlier is the 2012 LA Kings who finished 17th).

Furthermore, they had the most 15 goal scorers in the league this year, the second best defense in the NHL, and the third best offense. If NHL teams were built by the three little pigs, the Bruins would be built out of bricks – bricks laced with fortified steel…and then dipped in adamantium.

2) Depth:
A lot of teams have good depth, but the Bruins have the best depth in the league. Regularly rolling four lines, their top lines are allowed to stay fresh and make a sustained push in the third period, either to put the game away, or to make a comeback. Their depth also allows them to weather injuries without missing a beat.

As mentioned, they had the most 15 goal scorers in the league with eight players, and also the second most 20 goal scorers, with six players notching that plateau. This is the best and most well balanced attack in hockey.

3) Gorillas in the Mist:
Remember the movie Congo? I don’t either. But I do remember that there were these giant gorillas, who were bigger, stronger, faster. That’s tough enough to deal with, right? But these gorillas were also skilled in hunting; they worked together and took out the human interlopers one by one! (Full disclosure: I have no idea what the movie is about, but I’m rolling with this). These gorillas are the Boston Bruins. Long known for their big size, bruising nature, and hard-nosed play, this team boasts some serious scoring skill across their top three lines, and their chemistry is evident as they are top 5 in the league in many advanced possession stats (Corsi, Fenwick, PDO). (Full Disclosure take 2: I’m not sure if these are possession stats, but I’m rolling with this.)

4) Special Teams:
Hey, wait a second – this is a strength? The Stanley Cup winning Bruins team from 2011 is also known for having one of the worst power plays in NHL playoff history. Scary enough that they won a cup without their power play, because now they have one of the most dominant power plays in the league. Finishing third overall this season, the promotion of Torey Krug last year and the addition of Jerome Iginla have turned one of their few weaknesses into one of their greatest weapons. Their penalty kill finished 8th and was led by the soon to be Selke winner, Patrice Bergeron. So in summary, I’d like all Habs fans to reread point 1, and then reread this point…and then find a huge bowl of boiling hot clam chowder and dunk your head in it.

5) “Tukka”n play at this game:
I find it interesting lately that some members of the media have suggested that Tukka Rask is a by-product of a defensive system and if he played on a more “pedestrian” team his numbers wouldn’t be as good. Is there a more short-sighted and worse argument in sports? Every player in every sport is a by-product of their team. No one player is above his team, and if that is the case, then that team won’t win anything. Carey Price is a great goalie, but let’s get real please. So is Tukka Rask; in fact, he is one of the best goaltenders in the world. He will win the Vezina this year, and he is rolling into this series with a 0.961 save percentage. He’s capable of stealing this series even though he probably won’t have to. Think about that statement…and then find some Sam Adams and drink till you forget it.

The top 5 reasons that the Montreal Canadiens will win this series:

1) Mobile Defense:
The Habs boast two of the top twenty offensive defensemen in the league, as well as two defensemen who are regarded as elite passers out of their zone. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov give the Habs an advantage that few teams in the Eastern conference own. Some of the best analyses I heard during the Bruins/Red Wings series was that Detroit D had to move the puck up and out of the zone quick or else the Bruins forecheck was on them, wreaking havoc and causing turnovers. P.K. and Markov should be able to move the puck up to the forwards quick enough to avoid the forecheck for the most part, and at worst both are skilled enough to carry it out themselves (although when P.K. does it, I sometimes close my eyes and pray to St. Rocket). Make no mistake about it – the Bruins will target both and make it a point to hit them hard and hit them often, and while those two players will be instrumental in countering the forecheck, they’ll need the full support of their defensive partners and their forwards to survive the Bruins.

2) Depth:
So the Habs have depth, too? I thought the Bruins were the deepest team in the league. The Bruins are the deepest team in the league, but the Habs boast their own depth although it tends to exist on a slippery slope. (By slippery, I mean it’s apparently built on a foundation of hugs, some shrewd mid-season pick-ups and a great medical staff.) The emergence of Rene Bourque in the first round has allowed Therrien to roll four effective lines. The additions of Vanek, Weise and Weaver have all worked out and given the Habs more scoring punch, more grit and more insurance in case of injury. When you also consider that veterans like Gionta and Briere understand the stakes of the playoffs and raise their games, it makes the Habs a more dangerous team. We can’t forget the enthusiasm of young players like Bournival and Gallagher as well. It seems like for the first time in 21 years, the Habs can roll four legit lines right now.

3) Who’s afraid of the big bad Bruins:
I’ll be the first to admit it. Zdeno Chara is scary. In many sports leagues, size and weight are exaggerated to make a statement. Chara is a statement. At 6’9, 260 pounds, he is a behemoth. A few years ago he infamously broke Max Pacioretty’s neck when he drove him into the stanchion at the Bell Centre. I’m not here to rehash that moment. What’s done is done, but here is the reality of what happened after: Pacioretty healed, came back stronger, and finished this season as the fourth leading goal scorer in the NHL. Do you think he’s scared of Chara? Not a chance. For whatever reason, the Habs aren’t scared of the Bruins. They aren’t intimidated. It’s old news to call the Habs a “small” team. Yes, Gionta is short; so is Gallagher…Desharnais is REALLY short. But you know what personality characteristics short, small players tend to develop? Resilience. They usually spend their whole lives hearing how they can’t make it and how they won’t make it. Do you think those guys are scared? Do you think they’re intimidated? They’re driven to beat teams like the Bruins. Yes, the Bruins are big. The Bruins are strong. The Bruins are tough. All those points are true, and so is this one…the Habs don’t give a flying crap about any of that. Drop the puck.

4) A tale of two Hulks:
Have the Forum ghosts finally made their way down to the Bell Centre? Fans have been speculating ever since the non goal/goal and the Stamkos broken stick in games 3 and 4 of the first round. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but what I do know is whether it’s the Habs mystique, or the fact that the Habs may be just a bunch of annoying pricks, but the Bruins just seem to struggle to maintain their game when they play them. Bottom line is the Habs get under the Bruins’ skin, and the Bruins will have to maintain their composure. This will be an important subplot in the series and a key factor for the Habs. They need to throw the Bruins off their game and also not fall into the trap of playing that game. It’s a fine line. The Habs need to make sure the Bruins end up like the Hulk at the beginning of The Avengers (when he transforms on the helicarrier). That Hulk proceeds to lose control, causes all sorts of damage, slaps the Black Widow, fights Thor, attacks a fighter jet and falls 30,000 feet into a building. Meanwhile the Bruins will try to be more like the Hulk at the end of The Avengers (when he casually tells Captain America…”Sup guy, everyone chill out, I’m always angry dude”) who in a very calm and in a controlled fashion turns into the Hulk and punches a ginormous, 20 ton flying slug in the face.

5) Price is Right:
There is a reason I left this point till the end: goaltending is the single most important factor in this series.
Without a shadow of a doubt the only way the Habs can win this match up is if Carey Price is the best player in this series. This is his moment; he has a chance to take his legacy to another level. Already accomplished in every way, I’ve discussed him at length in my previous blog entry and will not rehash his many accolades, but win or lose, he needs to excel here. While many fans point to Rask’s poor record versus the Habs and Price’s good record versus the Bruins, the bottom line is the playoffs are a new season, and they’re both starting at zero against one another.

Odds are whoever wins this goaltending fight will lead their respective teams to victory in the series.

There you have it. If you have any feedback, feel free to leave any comments on facebook or twitter!!(follow me @wolverine_z).

Oh…and who am I picking? Bruins in 6. But I hope I’m wrong…I really really hope I’m wrong.

Go Habs Go.

A Tale of Two (Losing) Cities.

It’s been 2 weeks since the Habs were eliminated and beaten soundly by the Ottawa Senators. The horde of Habs’ haters out there finally rejoiced after spending a majority of the season scratching their hands and stroking their evil beards with nothing to say as the Habs played inspired and competitive hockey. Alas, Prust wore down, something happened to Price, Emelin tried to hit Lucic, and we needed something that smelled rotten in the state of Denmark to wake up Eller after Gryba annihilated him. Needless to say the Habs’ cinderella season struck midnight, the beanstalk sprouted to the heavens and the giants came out for the playoffs. (I’m not sure how many more fairy tale references I should be allowed to include. I blame impending fatherhood)

Well here is my dirty little secret: if you were able to take a peek at my pre-playoff picks, you’d have seen the following:

– Ottawa Senators over the Montreal Canadiens in 6 games.

Hold on now…before you call me a traitor or accuse me of not being a “real fan”. I’m a sports fan, and I enjoy occasionally gambling on sports. I’m also a die hard Habs’ fan, so you can argue I hedged my emotions against my financial gain. Realistically though, given all the reasons mentioned above (except Eller, who got hurt in Game 1) the Habs’ were going to be in tough regardless. Throw in the fact that the Sens got back a Norris trophy winning defenseman just before the playoffs, and that they were getting hot at the right time. It was a no brainer to pick them to win. I wasn’t going out on a the limb here, most “experts” had the Sens ahead on the scorecard. So there you have it, an amazing season ends with a resounding thud.

I think once the disappointment wears off, most Habs’ fans will look back on this season as a watershed moment for the franchise. For the first time in years we have a franchise defenseman, a franchise centerman, and yes – a franchise goaltender (spare me the Price hate for now, I’ll address it in a future post and you can all tell me how much he sucks). Along with several other impact players under the age 25 and 6 picks in the first 3 rounds of the upcoming draft; the Habs are positioned well for the future. If Bergevin plays his cards right, and with a little luck, this could be a contending team sooner than later.

Nonetheless it was a disappointing way to end the season. Ottawa exposed our lack of size and polished us off in 5 games with 6-1 drubbing. Honestly I wasn’t that sad after game 5 was over. Sure I would have preferred NOT losing by 5 goals but ultimately the game 4 loss, in which we led by 2 for most of the game, was way more devastating. To give up a tying goal with less than a minute left in the game and then lose in OT. Well…I’m pretty sure I threw a coffee table. I was legitimately crushed and heart broken. At one point I compared the feeling to having my heart broken by my first girlfriend. Instead off throwing on some torn jeans, a plaid shirt and smoking a pack cigarettes while listening to Black by Pearl Jam. I simply moped around a bit until my pregnant wife reminded me that she’s going through way more “pain” and we went home.

Ultimately, the Habs had no real shot at winning this series, especially after Eller got his bell rung. With Pacioretty and Prust banged up, we lost even more size and jam which was lacking in the first place. Even with that knowledge and lowered expectation, it is always difficult when your team loses and I was feeling bad for myself and other true Habs fans…until game 7 of the Leafs and Bruins series.

Truth be told, I dislike both teams…a lot. Despite that, I found myself cheering for the Bruins to advance. So with ten minutes left in the game I resigned myself to the fact that the Leafs would upset the Bruins. I’d have to listen to all sorts irrational, idiotic, overconfident trash talk from from my Toronto based friends for a year.

We all know what happened.

As Leafs’ fans planned the parade route down Yonge street, the Bruins woke up. I was alerted to the fact that the score was 4-3 by text, and turned the channel just in time to see the tying goal. I waited through the intermission, while my wife questioned why I was watching a game featuring two teams whose jerseys I would most likely use to start a bonfire or clean the toilet with. When the Bruins won the game I was happy for them but probably more happy that the Leafs didn’t win. After receiving and sending 44 messages in 18 seconds on my phone. I sat down and for a moment and I thought of the Leafs’ fans…

..and I felt bad. It was brief, but I felt bad.

If you base this game on Bill Simmons “Levels of Losing” scale (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/071001) it is most certainly a Level 3 “Stomach Punch”, with a dose of Level 4 “The Guillotine”, and Level 5 “The Broken Axle”.

Trust me, there isn’t a worse way to lose in sports or a worse feeling then what a Leafs’ fans went through during game 7. However, like the Habs’ fan they love to hate, their team had a good season. I think once the disappointment wears off, Leafs’ fans should be able to look back on this season and feel good about the team and optimistic about the future…

…it might just take a little longer. (and a lot of alcohol)