BROSSARD, Que. - A tough battle awaits Montreal against the Ottawa Senators in the NHL playoffs, but the Canadiens will gladly take it after what happened last year.
The Canadiens were dead last in the Eastern Conference a year ago and by late April were well into their off-season routines. Now they face a best-of-seven conference quarter-final against their closest geographical rival.
"It's tough when you finish in 15th place," defenceman P.K. Subban said Monday. "Some guys are going home right now and some are going to the world championship.
"Some are going to start training in another week and a half. We're still playing hockey. We're privileged to do that, but we worked hard to put ourselves in that position and now we'll work hard to keep playing. We know what the ultimate goal is."
The Canadiens ended up second in the conference when the Senators knocked off the Bruins 4-2 in Boston on Sunday night in a game postponed by the Boston Marathon bombing two weeks ago.
Montreal will face the seventh-place Senators in the playoffs for the first time, with the opening two games at the Bell Centre on Thursday and Friday night before moving to Ottawa for Game 3 on Sunday. The teams have never really had a heated rivalry, but that may change when they meet in the post-season.
"Whenever we go to Ottawa there's a big Canadiens following (there)," said Subban. "There's going to be a lot of energy in both Scotiabank Place and the Bell Centre.
"But I played world juniors there (in 2008). I've seen that place when it's full, for high-intensity games, and it's a fun place to play. We're very lucky to have two Canadian teams in the first round. I mean, there's going to be one national anthem before the game and the Canadian flag will be passed around. It's a cool atmosphere to be in."
The Senators, who lost four times in the post-season to their other rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs, a decade ago, are also looking forward to a first meeting with Montreal.
"They have a pretty good team over there," said goalie Craig Anderson. "They have come a long way all year and they found a way to win the division, especially after having a sub par year last year, so they are definitely feeling good about themselves.
"It's a good atmosphere building and a tough building to go into, but we are looking forward to the atmosphere those buildings bring."
As for the hockey, it isn't likely to be the most physical series, but should be a close one between two skilled clubs who each went 2-1-1 against the other this season.
However, the Senators were missing four key elements for much of the season in Anderson and defencemen Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen — who all recently returned to the lineup — and still-sidelined centre Jason Spezza.
Ottawa was able to win enough to make the playoffs for a second year in a row by playing a tight, patient game, staying inside their system and jumping on opponents' mistakes.
Montreal has three scoring lines and the league's fourth best power play (20.7 per cent) built around point men Subban and Andrei Markov, although Ottawa counters with the NHL's best penalty-killing unit (88 per cent).
"It's going to be a series of mistakes," added Subban. "Both teams have systems in place and they execute them well.
"It'll be who can execute better and who is more disciplined. They've got a good power play and we've shown we can have a good one at times. For us right now it's about being focused and staying on task."
Karlsson emerged as a star last season when he won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenceman and his return from an ugly skate cut is a huge boost to Ottawa's attack, especially on the power play.
In his absence, Subban has become a Norris candidate with 11 goals and 38 points in 41 games.
Much attention has already turned to how that match-up will play out.
"Erik's a great player and I'm sure he'd say the same thing _ this series isn't going to be decided by two players," said Subban, who also faced Sweden's Karlsson in the 2008 world juniors. "He's a great talent and it's good to see that he's back in the game.
"People pay a lot of money and they want to see the best players in the world and he's one of them, so to get a player like that back will make the series more interesting. But it's not P.K. Subban against Erik Karlsson."
It may turn out to be Anderson against Carey Price, however, as goalies are sure to play a big role in a series that should have a lot of one-goal games.
Price is coming off his toughest stretch of the season, when he lost six of seven games, was pulled twice, and looked to have lost his confidence. He bounced back with a win in Winnipeg last week, and back-up Peter Budaj picked up the regular season-ending victory in Toronto on Saturday night.
Asked how he felt going in, Price said: "It's good. Obviously we didn't have a bright stretch there but we played two pretty solid games in the last two and we have to be fairly confident going into the playoffs."
Coach Michel Therrien feels Price showed in his last two outings, including a 3-2 loss in New Jersey last week, that he has his game back.
"We saw Carey Price the way he is capable of playing," said Therrien. "His work ethic and concentration were there.
"I have no doubts about Carey Price. He's our best player and I'm confident he will be again on Thursday night."
The series will start late because the NHL wanted to give Ottawa and Boston an extra day off after their make-up game. The Bell Centre was booked for a Rihanna concert on Wednesday night, so it will start on Thursday. Another concert by singer Marie-Mai set for Friday night was cancelled to make way for hockey.
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