MONTREAL -- Teams wishing to slow the balanced, potent attack of the Montreal Canadiens need to be able to skate with their speedy forwards and lay the body on them if they're ever able to catch up to them.
Perhaps no team in the Eastern Conference has the ability to do that as well as the Canadiens' first-round opponents in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Ottawa Senators.
Erik Karlsson's near-miraculous return from injury has garnered most of the attention in Ottawa, but the early return of Jared Cowen from hip surgery gives the Senators a defense that is big, mobile and nasty -- a group that could be the kryptonite to the Canadiens' quickness.
With 6-foot-5, 230-pound Cowen added to a group that already included Marc Methot (6-3, 231), Chris Phillips (6-3, 221), and emerging Eric Gryba (6-4, 222), the Senators' defense features four players who have muscle and know how to use it.
"The playoffs are always physical, especially the early games. We've embraced that a little bit in Ottawa this year and it's something we'll encourage our group to do [Thursday]," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "But a big part of our team is being able to skate and play with speed. Montreal is all about speed and we'll have to match that speed. If you can't catch it, you can't really hit it."
The Canadiens have speed and scoring through their top three forward lines, but the Senators can match that with a big, bruising defenseman on each of their three pairings. At practice Wednesday, Methot was paired with Karlsson on the top pair, Cowen played with Sergei Gonchar on the second pair, and Gryba and Phillips made up the third pair.
The surprisingly early return of Cowen and the emergence of Gryba significantly changed the complexion of the Senators' defense, with Karlsson's return providing the final ingredient to make this group of six among the best in the Eastern Conference.
"Jared's been kind of left behind in all these injury questions we've had with all these quality players," MacLean said. "Jared got hurt in the American [Hockey] League so it kind of went under the radar, but Jared was a very important part of our team last year and we missed him a lot this year. His size and strength and ability are evident in the games that he's played. He can be a force on the ice."
Cowen's absence this season was mitigated by the offseason arrival via trade of Methot, who is the embodiment of the tough, rugged, stay-at-home defenseman that makes a perfect partner for the free-wheeling Karlsson.
Methot has been facing the opponent's top forwards all season, and that won't change against Montreal. He wants to make sure the Canadiens forwards he's matched against know they will be in for a long series.
"That's one of my main goals for this series and the first couple of games -- I plan on using my body a lot," Methot said. "I'm a bigger guy and that's my role. I think we have a lot of guys on the back end that can handle the physical play, and we're looking forward to that."
The injuries earlier in the season allowed Gryba to establish himself as another physical defenseman who can make opposing forwards somewhat skittish as they cross the Senators blue line. The Boston University graduate, who spent two full seasons with Binghamton of the AHL, made the most of his NHL opportunity and appears to have earned a spot among Ottawa's playoff top-six thanks to his physical play.
"Gryba stands out because I don't think he was on the radar, but got the chance and made the most of it," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "He's been real consistent for us, good in our own end, physical, making good passes. I think he's been getting better as time has gone on."
Gryba knows exactly what endeared him to MacLean and the Senators coaching staff, and he intends on emphasizing the physical nature of his game against the Canadiens.
"Being an intimidating team is something that we want to do," Gryba said. "You look at the size on our back end, with the exception of Karlsson everyone else is a big, strong type of player. So we'll play to our strengths and play physical and make it hard on their forwards.
"It's something we'll put an emphasis on, and hopefully that will turn into an advantage."
The Canadiens lost a big chunk of their physical presence on the blue line when defenseman Alexei Emelin went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee April 6. The impact on play in their zone immediately was noticeable; Montreal lost six of its next eight games and allowed 29 goals in those six losses. However, the Canadiens attempted to replace some of it by calling up rookie defenseman Jarred Tinordi -- 6-foot-6, 205 pounds -- from the AHL to play in the final two games of the regular season.
Montreal won both games, in Winnipeg and Toronto, and Tinordi totaled 11 hits.
"I was watching the games before and I could obviously tell the team was struggling a little bit, and I felt my game would fit in well with this team," Tinordi said. "My style was something that was maybe lacking a little bit."
However, even with Tinordi, the Canadiens' defense can be categorized as a puck-moving and positionally sound group that is not particularly big or physical, led by what has become the top pairing of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov.
This group will have to deal with the Senators' physical forwards, who will try to make them pay the price every time they need to retrieve a puck in their end.
"It's wearing teams down," said Senators forward Chris Neil, who led the team and finished second in the League with 206 hits in the regular season. "That’s been my role in the NHL, I try to take pride in it and do it to the best of my ability. Over a seven-game series you want to play guys hard that play a lot of minutes for them. That's not just me, it's the whole team. If Subban's playing 30 minutes, we want to make it a hard 30 minutes for him. Same with Markov."
The Senators have made a point of emphasizing how the Canadiens are the favorites in the series, how they finished second in the Eastern Conference and fourth in goals per game and that all the pressure is on them.
However, it is the physical pressure the Senators have the ability to apply that just might allow them to topple the favorites and advance to the second round.
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