Bruins-Canadiens (Getty Images)
The only Original Six matchup in this year’s first round, Boston vs. Montreal promises to keep the fireworks going.
Simply put, these teams -- and their fan bases -- do not like each other. After a brief period of dormancy, the fires that stoke this red-hot rivalry are once again raging.
A pair of bitter incidents highlighted this year’s regular-season series -- a fight-filled blowout by the Bruins on Feb. 10 was followed by the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty in a game on March 8.
Both those events have added fuel to perhaps the best rivalry in sports, one that will play out before two passionate and hostile fan bases for the third time in four years. Three springs ago, the Canadiens got past the Bruins in seven games, and the following year Boston swept the Montreal Canadiens before falling themselves, to Carolina, in the second round.
Last year, Boston was knocked out in the second round in catastrophic fashion against Philadelphia after taking a three-games-to-none lead, while Montreal made a surprising and inspiring run to the conference final.
Both have designs on another deep run this spring, but one will be handed another bitter chapter in this long-running rivalry.
The Bruins have their share of players that can create offense.
Milan Lucic had a career year, topping the 30-goal plateau for the first time. Plus, they are deep down the middle with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci dishing sweet passes to a collection of wingers that bring a varied skill set to the table.
The question remains, though, as to whether those wingers can score with enough regularity.
Nathan Horton had a great start to his first campaign in Boston, but has struggled on and off since. Michael Ryder has not flashed the goal-scoring touch that made him such a hot commodity a few years back. As a result, he is sliding down the team’s depth chart. Rookie Tyler Sequin has had his bright spots, but they have been less and less frequent as the season has worn on and there are suggestions he won’t have a starting spot when the playoffs arrive. Does veteran Mark Recchi have enough gas for another long playoff run?
The Bruins do have all the grit they will need, though. Daniel Paille, Brad Marchand and especially Shawn Thornton play the crash-bang, north-south game that seems to flourish as series become extended.
No playoff team has scored fewer goals at even strength than the Canadiens, and that deficiency perfectly describes what has been the team’s weakest area this season.
The Canadiens' group of undersized forwards is led by Tomas Plekanec, one of the premier two-way players in the game, but who has struggled offensively during the second half of the season.
Plekanec has scored just 3 goals in 22 games since Feb. 10, a dry spell that can help explain the team’s rather pedestrian 7-7-1 finish to the season.
But while Plekanec has only slowed down of late, the Canadiens veteran triumvirate of Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri have been underwhelming all season.
Gomez just completed the worst statistical season of his 11-year career, not only failing to put up the offensive numbers with only 38 points in 80 games, but also putting up the worst plus/minus rating of his career at minus-15.
This group of veteran leaders will need to pick up their games in the playoffs if the Canadiens are to have any chance of success.
The loss of Max Pacioretty to a concussion and fractured vertebra on March 8 was a huge blow to the Canadiens as well, though he is back on his skates and the possibility does remain that he could return at some point in the playoffs, provided his teammates survive long enough to give him a chance.
Everybody talks about Zdeno Chara when the discussion turns to Boston’s defense. How could it not. Not only is Chara 6-foot-9, 255 pounds -- which would be hard to ignore at any time -- but he is among the game’s best defensemen, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate.
But the Bruins are far more than just Chara on the blue line. In fact, they have a good combination of youth and experience, as well as size and skill. In fact, none of Boston’s six regular defensemen possess a minus rating, combining for a plus-105.
Plus, Boston GM Peter Chiarelli made a good unit even better when he obtained veteran offensive defenseman Tomas Kaberle from Toronto. Kaberle has struggled a bit in Boston, but possesses a game-changing offensive arsenal.
The Canadiens have played most of the season without their two cornerstones on the blue line. Both Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges underwent reconstructive knee surgery, but their loss allowed for the emergence of rookie phenom P.K. Subban.
Gorges played his last game Dec. 26, which was also the fifth time in a span of 11 games where Subban was scratched by coach Jacques Martin, causing a huge uproar in Montreal.
Martin approached Subban upon his return to the lineup and asked him to cut down on his risky forays into the offensive zone and focus his energy on the defensive side of his game, pairing him with the steady veteran hand of Hal Gill.
Since then, the Gill-Subban duo has become Montreal’s shut-down defensive pairing at both even strength and on the penalty kill. Ironically, Subban’s focus on defense has led to an explosion on offense as well, as his 12 goals in 43 games since Jan. 1 is tops among NHL defensemen.
Montreal’s second pairing has a similar mix of offense and defense with James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik. The third pairing will have a rotation of veterans Brent Sopel (who is playing with a fractured arm), Jaroslav Spacek (who just returned after missing 23 games due to arthroscopic knee surgery), and Paul Mara.
Tim Thomas is the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy this year for many reasons.
He carried a sub-2.00 goals-against average into the final weekend of the season and finished at exactly 2.00, the lowest GAA in the League. Plus, his .938 save percentage was head and shoulders above any other regular goalie in the League this season.
But perhaps the biggest reason Thomas was on the tip of every hockey fan’s tongue was because of the way he compiled those numbers, as well as his 35 victories. Few goalies battle as hard as Thomas to keep the puck out of the net, a style that reflects the journey the veteran took in becoming a NHL No. 1 late in life.
Boston believes it is that willingness to battle and never give up on a play that makes Thomas the ideal goalie to be involved in an emotional series. Simply, his mental toughness is second to none.
Unlike Montreal, which rode No. 1 Carey Price heavily, Boston got backup Tuukka Rask 27 starts and has complete faith in the young Finn if something bad happens to Thomas.
Just like a year ago when the Canadiens rode the hot hand of Jaroslav Halak to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, the team’s chances for success in the playoffs sit squarely on the shoulders of Carey Price.
Montreal’s uncontested MVP, Price established a new franchise record by appearing in 72 games, erasing all doubts that General Manager Pierre Gauthier made the wrong decision when he decided to trade away Halak and stick with the team’s No. 5 selection in the 2004 Entry Draft.
The entire team’s philosophy and game-planning is centered around Price, who is relied upon to make the first save while his teammates focus their energy on sweeping away rebounds and trying to make sure those initial shots come from a safe distance.
The one concern is that Price was overused this season and, even though he is only 23, he may be too worn down to handle rigors of a long playoff run.
Claude Julien rarely gets the credit he deserves for the job he does behind the bench.
Julien has topped 90 points in each of the past six seasons and this is the third time in five years that he has topped 100 points. Boston’s 103 points this season delivered Julien his second Northeast Division title in three years.
It appears Julien is a victim of his own success -- as well as his conservative, stoic demeanor.
But there is no denying that he has implemented a defense-first system in Boston that suits his personnel and complements his elite-level goalie. He has gracefully integrated several newcomers into the lineup and has found a way to get backup Rask a number of starts without ruffling feathers or upsetting the team’s chemistry.
As a result, Boston’s players are willing to adhere to the tenets of Julien’s philosophy and see how far they can go.
Jacques Martin will never win awards for entertainment value, preaching a style of play that is about as conservative as his post-game press conferences.
But that style and that even-keel demeanor have allowed Martin to coax a second-straight playoff berth out of this team in spite of a number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
First, his best defenseman played all of seven games this season. Then his No. 1 center had the worst season of his career. His top goal scorer from last season, Gionta, scored just one more goal this season despite playing 21 more games. And his top sniper in last season’s playoffs, Cammalleri, could not reach the 20-goal mark after leading the League with 13 in the postseason a year ago.
Still, in spite of all this, the Canadiens are back in the playoffs.
While Price deserves a good deal of the credit for that, Martin certainly warrants his fair share as well.
The Bruins do not have the dominant power play that Montreal possesses, but it is a varied attack. Five different Bruins have at least five goals with the man advantage, but Zdeno Chara and Michael Ryder lead the parade with 8 PP goals each. As a result, Boston’s power play finished the season at No. 20
Boston’s penalty kill is slightly better, finishing at No. 16 with an 82.6 percent success rate, but still not in the rarefied air of the Canadiens.
Boston uses a kill-by-committee approach, which will keep players fresh.
Boston knows, however, that it can’t let this series turn into a special-teams affair.
Just three teams in the NHL finished in the top 10 on both the power play and the penalty kill: Vancouver, Tampa Bay and Montreal.
The Canadiens’ eighth-ranked power play is centered around silky puck movement, with two big cannons on the point in Subban and Wisniewski.
Subban’s 9 power-play goals are tied for tops in the League among defensemen, and 7 of those have come in the 43 games he’s played since Jan. 1. As for Wisniewski, only Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom and Anaheim’s Lubomir Visnovsky have more power-play points from the blue line than his 29.
The Canadiens’ penalty kill, ranked No. 7, has Price as its centerpiece, but the first unit of Subban and Gill on defense with Plekanec and Travis Moen up front is one of the most efficient in the League. For a team to score on the power play against Montreal, it will likely have to happen against the second unit.
Plekanec is also one of the top forwards in the NHL when it comes to defending 5-on-3 power plays, a master at cutting off passing lanes and forcing players to alter their shots with his positioning.
Michael Ryder, Boston -- The former Montreal 30-goal man failed to reach the 20-goal plateau for the second-straight season, finishing with 18 again. To say that patience is wearing thin with the at-times-enigmatic forward would be an understatement. Julien has moved Ryder up and down the lineup, trying to get a rise out of him, but with limited success. Yet, if Ryder catches fire in the postseason, Boston becomes a far more offensively dynamic proposition.
Mike Cammalleri, Montreal -- After struggling with various injuries for the better part of the season, Cammalleri’s game is coming into form. He finished the season with 3 goals and 3 assists during his final six games. While everyone’s focus last spring was on the outstanding play of Halak, he didn’t score any goals. That was Cammalleri’s domain, and if he finds that magic touch again it would make the Canadiens a very difficult out.
Boston will win if... It stays to its system. The Bruins showed during the season that its physical, disciplined system can give the smaller Canadiens fits. Although a defense-first philosophy may play a bit into the hands of the equally defensive Canadiens, Boston feels it has the better personnel to execute its vision with all other things being equal.
Montreal will win if... It gets from Carey Price the same kind of goaltending it received from Jaroslav Halak last postseason. Halak was the unquestioned MVP for Montreal during its run to the Eastern Conference Finals, making Price an afterthought. Now, Price is the man on the spot and he must fill Halak’s legendary postseason skates to make his regular season more than just a feel-good memory.
NHL.com Managing Editor Shawn P. Roarke and correspondent Arpon Basu contributed to this report.