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Canadiens vs. Senators series preview

by Staff

Montreal Canadiens

 Seed: 229-14-5 • 63 Pts.

Ottawa Senators

 Seed: 725-17-656 Pts.

The Ottawa Senators played their way into this matchup with the Montreal Canadiens -- and away from the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins -- with a 4-2 victory against the Boston Bruins in the final game of the NHL regular season.

The outcome changed several teams' fortunes, not only determining the final seedings but handing the Canadiens the Northeast Division title and the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

Ottawa overcame significant injuries to qualify as the seventh seed, but with defenseman Erik Karlsson and goaltender Craig Anderson looking to be in fine form, the Senators seem more dangerous than that number otherwise would indicate.

The Canadiens struggled down the stretch but it didn't much matter, and perhaps they can get a confidence boost from being able to call themselves a division champ and the second-best team in the conference entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The teams split their season series, each getting a regulation win and one in a shootout.


In the span of one offseason, the Montreal Canadiens went from a team that relied on the production of a single forward line for most of its offense to one that possesses one of the most balanced offensive arsenals in the NHL.

Each of the Canadiens' top three lines is a legitimate threat to score. Eight of the nine forwards who make up those lines had more than 25 points, and the ninth, Rene Bourque, might have were it not for the 21 games he missed with a concussion.

Coach Michel Therrien has anchored his top three lines with duos: Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, and Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk. The third member of each of those lines may change, but generally Therrien has deployed Michael Ryder with Plekanec and Gionta, Brendan Gallagher with Pacioretty and Desharnais, and Bourque with Eller and Galchenyuk.

It's difficult to refer to any of those three lines with the traditional first, second and third labels, but each has a clearly defined role. Therrien seldom matches lines, but when he does, it's Plekanec who gets the task of facing the opposing top line. The Desharnais line is almost exclusively used in offensive situations, and the Eller line is a hybrid of the first two.

Montreal's fourth line is anchored by Jeff Halpern and Brandon Prust, with Travis Moen or Colby Armstrong filling it out. Halpern has been an invaluable addition for his strength in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill.

The absence of No. 1 center Jason Spezza due to back surgery for all but the first five games, combined with other injuries, forced the Senators to play a close-to-the-vest style. Ottawa was among the lowest-scoring teams in the League, but the Senators managed to put enough pucks into the net to make the playoffs. Ottawa had three players (Kyle Turris, captain Daniel Alfredsson and rookie Jakob Silfverberg) reach double figures in goals, and no forward had as many as 20 assists.

The Senators need production from forward Milan Michalek, a 35-goal scorer last season who has four goals and missed 21 games with knee injuries in 2012-13. When he's healthy, Michalek adds speed and skill to a lineup comprised largely of grinders. At age 40, Alfredsson's offensive skills aren't what they were a few years ago, but he's still a useful player as well as a leader and mentor for Swedish rookies Mika Zibanejad and Silfverberg, each of whom had good moments in his first full NHL season.

Ottawa acquired Cory Conacher from the Tampa Bay Lightning before the NHL Trade Deadline in an effort to add offense, but he managed two goals and four points in his first 10 games for the Senators.

What the Senators do have are grinders. Zach Smith, Colin Greening, Chris Neil and Erik Condra won't put up big offensive numbers, but they'll bang and crash and put pucks on the net -- Ottawa led the NHL on shots on goal -- in hopes of wearing down opponents.

There's no sign Spezza will be back any time soon; if that's the case, Ottawa's forwards will be under pressure to make the most of the opportunities they get.


The Canadiens defense was the NHL's most dangerous offensively, with P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov providing the lion's share of that production as the top pairing on the power play. However, as Montreal sputtered down the stretch, the defense was a big reason the Canadiens appeared unable to compensate for the loss of the hard-hitting Alexei Emelin.

Emelin tore the ACL in his right knee during a 2-1 win against the Boston Bruins on April 6. At the time of his injury, Montreal was allowing 2.34 goals per game. In the 10 games since his injury, the Canadiens allowed 3.50 goals per game as the penalty kill and defensive-zone coverage suffered greatly in Emelin's absence.

Therrien and assistant coach Jean-Jacques Daigneault, who handles the defense, were fiddling with their pairings throughout the final two weeks of the season. The return of Rapahel Diaz from a concussion April 20 helped eat some of Emelin's lost minutes, but the lack of cohesion on defense remains a problem.

Subban, Markov, Diaz and Josh Gorges make up Montreal's top four, with veteran Francis Bouillon firmly established in the No. 5 spot. The sixth defense spot has been a bit of a revolving door of late, with Davis Drewiske, Yannick Weber and rookie Jarred Tinordi all candidates to fill that slot.

The return of Karlsson, last season's Norris Trophy winner, makes the Senators a different team. Karlsson is the best offensive defenseman in the NHL -- he was the runaway leader in scoring among blueliners last season. Karlsson missed almost 10 weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a 70-percent tear in his Achilles tendon. He returned Thursday night, played 27:11 and assisted on both goals in Ottawa's playoff-clinching victory against the Washington Capitals.

With Karlsson in the lineup, the rest of the defense can step back into roles for which they are better accustomed. Sergei Gonchar, who scored the playoff-clinching overtime goal in Washington, is a much better fit as a second offensive option. Veterans Chris Phillips and Matt Methot are solid in their zone, rookie Patrick Wiercioch has provided an offensive spark, and veteran Mike Lundin adds depth.

The Senators also got a boost from the return of Jared Cowen, the ninth player taken in the 2009 NHL Draft, who missed most of the season after undergoing hip surgery in November. Cowen is the opposite of Karlsson -- he's not going to put up many points, but he's a solid presence in his own zone. Cowen has stepped into the lineup and given the Senators a solid 20 minutes a game.


Carey Price is the man in Montreal, but a late-season swoon that coincided with Montreal's problems on defense turned 2012-13 into one of the worst statistical seasons of his career. His .905 save percentage is actually .9047, which makes it lower than the .9054 save percentage he posted in 2008-09, his previous career low.

But Price's save percentage was at .916 in 32 games on April 8, plummeting 11 points in his final seven appearances when he allowed 27 goals on 188 shots, a save percentage of .856.

The question is, which Price will be there in the playoffs?

Many people point to Price's 8-15 playoff record as a major fault, except his last appearance was in 2011 when he had a .934 save percentage while pushing the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins to overtime of a seventh game in the first round.

Backup Peter Budaj had an exceptional season, but if he sees any action it will mean Price has struggled, which would be bad news for the Canadiens.

Anderson lost nearly half of his season with a high ankle sprain, but he was among the NHL's best goaltenders when he was in the net. Anderson was leading all goaltenders in goals-against average and save percentage when he was injured; he showed no signs of any injury-related problems when he returned, and he's one of those goaltenders who seems to get better as the shot total climbs.

Anderson was the Senators' best player in last year's seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in the opening round, and there's no reason to believe he won't be at his best again. On an offensively challenged team, the Senators will need him to be at his best and be able to steal a game or two.

If something happens to Anderson, rookie Robin Lehner showed he's capable of carrying the load. His numbers were almost as good as Anderson's.


The job Therrien has done in turning around a team that finished last in the Eastern Conference to gaining home-ice advantage in the first round has him on most people's lists as a Jack Adams contender. The late-season slide may have dampened some of the accolades, but it shouldn't take away from what Therrien has done.

He used the Canadiens' two biggest strengths, goaltending and balance, and devised a plan around that. Montreal was an excellent puck-possession team most of the season, spending the majority of its time in the offensive zone and playing with a lead more often than not.

Therrien's challenge is to get his team to believe it can play that way again after completely forgetting the identity it forged over the first 35 games.

To watch Paul MacLean behind the bench is to wonder why he didn't get a coaching job until he was in his early 50s. MacLean has to be among the favorites for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year after getting the Senators into the playoffs despite a run of key injuries that would have decimated a lot of other teams.

MacLean did a masterful job integrating young players into the lineup when injuries struck, and he's been able to get his players to focus on winning with what they have rather than worrying about the ones who aren't there. He's taken lemons and made lemonade.

Special Teams

Any success the Canadiens have had in their recent history was usually linked to having a strong power play, and this season was no different. With Subban and Markov manning the points the vast majority of the time, opposing teams were left with a dilemma of where to focus their attention, one with no right answer. If teams load up on the point men, it opens up a lot of room for Montreal's forwards.

The penalty kill was decent most of the season with an 82.4 percent success rate as of April 11, the day Montreal clinched a playoff berth. But it finished the season allowing 11 goals on 36 chances over the final eight games, sending the Canadiens down to 23rd in the NHL with a 79.8 percent success rate.

Not surprisingly, the absence of Karlsson and Spezza was felt especially hard on the power play. The Senators don't earn a lot of power plays (especially at home) and converted about one in every six. Eight players had more than one power-play goal, but no one had more than three. The return of Karlsson, who had 28 power-play points in 2011-12, should give the unit a boost.

The Senators' success on the penalty kill is a big reason they're back in the playoffs. Ottawa was in the top three at home and on the road, and was battling the Boston Bruins for the honor of having the top penalty-kill in the League. Getting Karlsson back can only help.

Series Changers

Carey Price: The Canadiens' late-season swoon was not entirely Price's fault, in spite of his horrible numbers down the stretch. But it began with what may have been Price's worst performance of his career, allowing three goals on four shots in what would become a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 13. The Canadiens were porous defensively after that, but Price was clearly off his game. If he finds it, Price has the potential to win a series on his own. If he doesn't, the Canadiens don't stand much of a chance.

Craig Anderson: MacLean's system relies on top-notch goaltending -- the kind Anderson has shown he can provide. He's used to playing in tight games and seems to thrive when facing a lot of shots. On a team that still doesn't figure to score much, Anderson will have to steal a game or two for the Senators to advance. They don't have the firepower to win without him at his best.

What if...

Canadiens will win if … They remember what drove their turnaround this season, namely getting off to good starts in games so they can play with a lead and impose their style and system. They need the same strong defensive play and goaltending that made them the NHL's third team to clinch a playoff spot, and they must forget the bad habits they developed sputtering over the final stretch.

The Senators will win if … Anderson carries his regular-season numbers into the postseason, Karlsson shows no ill effects from his injury and plays up to the form that made him the NHL's best defenseman last season, and the offense can generate enough goals to win a host of low-scoring games.

Analysis by John Kreiser and Arpon Basu

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