MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens are Northeast Division champions, the second seed in the Eastern Conference, and should be favored in their quarterfinal series against the Ottawa Senators that begins Thursday (7 p.m. ET, CBC, RDS, CNBC).
Except they're not.
At least that would be the impression one would get by reading a lot of the predictions for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where many experts appear to believe the Senators could have an edge in the series.
Canadiens players feel comfortable ignoring opinions of those who think they can't beat the Senators in their first-round series. (Photo: Francois Lacasse/NHLI)
For the most part, the Canadiens don't appear to care.
"Coming in to the season, we finished last year in last place," Canadiens defensemen Josh Gorges said. "I understand people wouldn't give us a chance to be where we are. And when you get to this point there are always going to be skeptics who will say it was a fluke. People have their opinions outside this room. They're very much entitled to it, but we don't pay any attention to it."
A big reason for the skepticism would be Montreal's poor finish to the regular season, losing five of their final eight games and giving up five goals or more four times in that stretch.
"We're confident in ourselves, no matter what analysts or so-called experts say about us," Canadiens center Lars Eller said. "I think we played some awesome hockey for 90 percent of the season. We have so many things to be encouraged about in this room about the way we played."
So did the final 10 percent of the season ultimately outweigh the first 90 percent in many people's minds?
"It certainly seems that way from the little I've seen on TV and stuff like that," Eller said. "But you know what? It doesn't matter. Now we're going to the playoffs, and the same goes for Ottawa or any team. We've seen in the past that everyone starts over. There's something special about it. There's new energy, people go in with a new mindset, you get to have a new start to everything, like we did this season."
The one place the Canadiens are getting tons of respect is from their opponents. The Senators have relished the underdog role they find themselves in, even if so many people consider them favorites. Coach Paul MacLean has gone to great lengths to emphasize that Montreal is the favored team, perhaps in an attempt to apply some additional pressure to the Canadiens. But he said that is not the case.
"I try to be a realist as opposed to being an underdog or an overdog," MacLean said. "Right now, we're the seventh seed. That's what we are. I don't try to be something I'm not, so why would our team try to be something we're not? We're the seventh seed, so we are the underdog. Would I much rather be the first seed? Absolutely. I'd love to have 100 points, but we're not at that point yet with our team."
One thing the varied predictions for this series reveal is that it should be a hard-fought matchup, and that it likely will be very close. In fact, if you look at the two teams, there are numerous similarities.
Each has an elite offensive defenseman (Montreal's P.K. Subban, Ottawa's Erik Karlsson), each has a veteran offensive defenseman (Montreal's Andrei Markov, Ottawa's Sergei Gonchar), they each have a couple of exciting rookie forwards (the Canadiens' Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, the Senators' Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad) and they each have a tough guy who can dictate the feel of a game (Brandon Prust for the Canadiens, Chris Neil for the Senators).
That might be why the Canadiens are aware they are facing a difficult opponent, and have shown as much respect for the Senators as Ottawa has shown them.
"We don't really care too much about what they say about us," Gallagher said. "We know what we've done all year, we know the type of team we are and we know we can be a very good team. We can beat any team in this League if we're playing the right way. That said, Ottawa's a very good team. They do a lot of things well, they're well-coached, they get good goaltending and they don't make too many mistakes. It's going to be a good series, it's going to be tight and it's going to be fun to be a part of."