For all of the forthcoming hype about goaltender Carey Price dueling with Andrew Hammond "The Hamburglar," the Eastern Conference First Round series between the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators could be decided between the blue lines.
Price has been incredible this season, and the Canadiens were going to lean heavily on him against any team in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Montreal may need to do so even more than expected when Hammond and the Ottawa Senators come to Bell Centre for Game 1 on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, CBC, TVA Sports).
The Canadiens have the lowest shot attempt percentage (SAT%) of any team that qualified for the postseason in the Eastern Conference (15th among the 16 playoff teams). At first glance, Ottawa's puck possession advantage doesn't seem that large.
The Senators, over the course of the entire season, are sixth among playoff teams in the East and 13th among all NHL teams still playing. Ottawa made a coaching change though, and Dave Cameron's influence on their ability to possess the puck was significant.
Ottawa has been better since Cameron took over in December and eventually, after a few injuries opened up more playing time for players like defenseman Patrick Wiercioch and forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the Senators really started to improve. They are fourth among playoff teams in the East since Feb. 1 in SAT%.
Defenseman Erik Karlsson generates a lot for the Senators, but Wiercioch also has excellent possession numbers and has earned top-four minutes. An important part of the evolution of this Senators team has been the development of forwards Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad, and Pageau at center.
The Canadiens have one of the NHL's most underrated centers, but beyond Tomas Plekanec that is a position where Ottawa may have an edge. Some of Montreal's possession problems are clearly not because of the talent on the roster.
Coach Michel Therrien has juggled the roles of several players throughout the season, moving them up and down (or out of) the lineup. Lars Eller is a solid No. 3 center when the Canadiens allow him to be. Alex Galchenyuk might be their No. 1 someday, but for now he remains on the wing.
Montreal is a top-heavy team up front, and the status of forward Max Pacioretty could be of paramount importance. When the quartet of Pacioretty, Plekanec, Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher are rolling, the Canadiens can score with anyone.
Subtract Pacioretty, and the Canadiens are going to struggle to match depth with Ottawa while leaning on forwards like David Desharnais, Dale Weise and Devante Smith-Pelly or PA Parenteau.
This series also features two Norris Trophy candidates. When P.K. Subban is on the ice, the Canadiens are not a bad possession team. It should be noted that when Subban and Karlsson were on the ice together this season at even strength, Ottawa controlled nearly 61 percent of the shot attempts (42-27, thanks to the matchup information at www.datarink.com).
Price has been incredible all season. Hammond has been incredible for a third of the season since he was called upon. If the Senators dictate the play, will Price be able to make the difference?