The NHL's biggest postseason rivalry is back for another installment.
The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens will meet for the 34th time in Stanley Cup Playoff history when they get together in an Eastern Conference Second Round series. The Canadiens have been off since completing a first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 22; the Bruins held up their end by completing a five-game blitz of the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.
Though the Bruins won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top team during the regular season, they lost three of four games against the Canadiens, including two played in Boston (one in regulation, one in a shootout). The Canadiens have won six of the past seven games and are 351-264-103-7 in the regular season against the Bruins.
Though Canadiens backup goaltender Peter Budaj is not likely to see a lot of playoff action against the Bruins, he played three times against them in the regular season and won twice, allowing six goals and finishing with a 1.95 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. Starting goaltender Carey Price won his only start against Boston, allowing one goal.
Forward Max Pacioretty had two goals, each a game-winner, against the Bruins. The only other Canadiens player to score more than once was defenseman Alexei Emelin, who scored twice and had one of Montreal's two power-play goals.
Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask played in all four games against Montreal, going 1-2-1 with a 1.94 GAA and .932 save percentage. Patrice Bergeron was by far the Bruins' best offensive player against the Canadiens; he led Boston with two goals and three points, and he scored its lone power-play goal and game-winner.
No teams have come close to meeting in the playoffs as many times as the Bruins and Canadiens. The 33 Boston-Montreal series are more than the 23 between the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the 170 games between the Bruins and Canadiens are the most for playoff opponents; the Red Wings and Maple Leafs are next with 117.
The Canadiens have won 24 of the 33 series and 102 of the 170 playoff games, but most of that domination came from 1946-87, when the Canadiens won 18 consecutive series. Beginning with a five-game victory in 1988, the Bruins have won seven of the past 11, including the most recent meetings in 2009 and 2011.
The Canadiens opened the 2011 series with back-to-back wins in Boston, only to have the Bruins bounce back with two wins in Montreal. The teams exchanged 2-1 victories at home, and Boston got an overtime goal by Nathan Horton in Game 7, marking the first time the Bruins won a playoff series after losing the first two games. Boston advanced despite going 0-for-21 on the power play, the first time a team won a seven-game series without scoring a power-play goal.
The ability of the Bruins to roll all four lines during the first round of the playoffs was a boon for the organization. By dispensing quality ice time to lines which remained consistent throughout the five-game series against the Red Wings, coach Claude Julien was able to develop chemistry and consistency.
Each line has a different purpose for the Bruins, although they are all well-rounded. The top line, anchored by David Krejci and featuring power forwards Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla, is a possession-type line which gets in on the attack and cycles relentlessly for opportunities, wearing down opponents in the process. The second line, centered by Bergeron and featuring top-notch agitator Brad Marchand, can play shutdown minutes against an opponent's top line but also be dangerous at the same time. The third line provides a solid checking presence, and often Julien uses his fourth line as an energy generator, using it at crucial moments to see if it can establish a cycling, punishing-against-the-walls attack that has become a hallmark of this team.
If that wasn't good enough, the Bruins are waiting on reinforcements. Bottom-six wings Daniel Paille and Chris Kelly are trying to work their way back into the lineup. Paille looks close to returning.
The Canadiens, for perhaps the first time in recent history, can roll four lines with the same level of confidence as the Bruins.
Montreal's top scoring line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and NHL Trade Deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek was dangerous in a first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning without putting up huge numbers. The line combined to score three goals in four games after scoring 18 times in the final 14 games of the regular season.
But the rest of Montreal's lines more than picked up the slack.
Brendan Gallagher and Rene Bourque tied for the team lead with three goals apiece. They play on the second and third lines, which were tasked with shutting down Tampa Bay's top line and helped hold Steven Stamkos to two assists in the final three games of the series.
Bourque's line with Lars Eller and captain Brian Gionta was Montreal's most productive with six goals, and Gallagher's line with Tomas Plekanec and Brandon Prust was second with five goals.
The Canadiens' fourth line has Daniel Briere at center with Dale Weise on one wing. Rookie Michael Bournival was on the other wing against Tampa Bay, but Travis Moen has recovered from a concussion and he is likely to slot in for Bournival. Weise scored the overtime winner in Game 1 and Briere opened the scoring in Game 4 against the Lightning.
Montreal is hopeful Alex Galchenyuk will be recovered from a lower-body injury in time to play in the series.
In the first round, Boston's active, aggressive defensemen were the biggest difference between the teams. The group provided four goals and 12 points to help get the offense into top gear and keep it there.
We all know about Zdeno Chara, the minutes-eating defender. He had two goals, each on the power play, and was his usual dominating self at each end of the ice. Torey Krug, the darling of the postseason last spring, had another big offensive series to open the 2014 playoffs. They were joined by 20-year-old Dougie Hamilton, whose play belies his youth and inexperience. There were times in the series when Hamilton was the third-best defenseman on the ice behind Chara and Detroit's Niklas Kronwall.
The Bruins also have a physical element from the blue line with Chara, Johnny Boychuk and Kevan Miller leading the way. That trio combined to record 49 hits in the five games against Detroit, wearing out the Red Wings forwards as the series progressed.
Boston has enviable depth as well. Corey Potter and Andrej Meszaros were forced to play in Game 1 when Miller and Matt Bartkowski were sidelined by the flu, and they played admirably. Plus, Dennis Seidenberg, the traditional No. 2 for the team, is making a faster-than-expected recovery from a knee injury and has started skating a bit.
The Canadiens lean heavily on their top four on defense, assuring that one of Andrei Markov or P.K. Subban is on the ice for the great majority of the game.
Markov plays on Montreal's top pair with Alexei Emelin, and Subban plays with Josh Gorges, giving each pairing a puck-mover and a stay-at-home defenseman. It also gives each pairing a player who always managed to get under Boston's skin, with Emelin and Subban routinely targeted by Bruins forwards during the regular season.
One of Markov or Subban were on the ice for nearly 44 even-strength minutes a game against the Lightning. The third pairing of Francis Bouillon and Mike Weaver played 13-14 minutes a game at even strength.
The Bruins' top three lines can expect a steady dose of the Markov and Subban pairings in the series, with Michel Therrien attempting to shelter Bouillon and Weaver as much as possible, though that is more difficult on the road.
It worked against Tampa Bay, with Weaver and Bouillon sharing the Montreal lead with a plus-5 rating.
Offensively, Subban is tied for the Canadiens lead in scoring with five points, all assists, and is among the best defensemen in the playoffs with 1.25 points per game. Markov, after putting up 43 points in 81 regular-season games, has yet to register a point in these playoffs and has 19 points in 58 career games, well below his regular-season average.
Rask is one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, and he showed why in the first round.
He was practically unflappable stopping 146 of 152 shots across five games. His loss in Game 1 came after he had held Detroit off the board for almost 57 minutes.
Rask, a bronze medalist with Finland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, has shown no signs of the heavy workload wearing on him and appears to be getting stronger as the season progresses.
In the regular season, Rask played in all four games against Montreal; he won once. In the others, he allowed two goals in one game, was pulled midway through after allowing three goals in another, and lost the final meeting of the regular season in the shootout after allowing one goal in regulation
Carey Price is in the second round of the playoffs as the starting goaltender for the first time since his rookie season in 2007-08, and Game 1 of this series will be the second time Price faces the Bruins this season.
Goalie - MTL
GAA: 2.33 | SVP: 0.904
Backup Peter Budaj started the past three games against Boston in the regular season. Price made 32 saves in the first game against Boston on Dec. 5, a 2-1 Montreal win.
Price is in the midst of the best season of his career, establishing career bests in save percentage (.927) and goals-against average (2.32) and helping Canada to the gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics with 103 saves on 106 shots in the tournament.
Price was not outstanding in the first round with a .904 save percentage, but for the most part he didn't need to be. He will against Boston.
Julien knows his way around the playoffs. Since joining Boston, he has led the organization there in each of his seven seasons. The Bruins have managed 10 series wins in that time and strung together four series wins in a row in 2011 to win the Stanley Cup. Last season, the Bruins made it to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final before losing in agonizing fashion with a furious rally by the Chicago Blackhawks in the last two minutes of regulation.
But putting disappointing results in the rearview mirror is a specialty of Julien, who is as adept as any coach in turning the page and/or making in-series adjustments.
Julien coached in Montreal for three seasons, from 2002 to 2005. He is intimately familiar with the scrutiny and distractions which are part and parcel of any series against the Canadiens. He will be ready for whatever is thrown the Bruins' way.
When the Canadiens drew the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, almost everyone gave Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper the advantage against Montreal counterpart Michel Therrien.
That proved to be a gross miscalculation.
Therrien devised a game plan against the Lightning that had Cooper's team flustered throughout the series, centered on a forechecking scheme that produced turnovers by the bushel in the offensive and neutral zones. That created a ton of offensive opportunities for the Canadiens and gave them a clear puck possession advantage in the series.
Against one of the top possession teams in the NHL, Therrien will need to tailor a similar game plan facing a team that takes care of the puck much better than the Lightning.
In two seasons behind the Canadiens bench, Therrien's team has won six of the eight regular-season games against the Bruins.
After struggling with the power play for so long, especially in the playoffs, the Bruins seem to have found their way out of the wilderness. In the first round against Detroit, Boston went 6-for-16 with the man-advantage and it proved to be one of the biggest differences in the series. Detroit managed two power-play goals against Boston's penalty killers, which is usually a pillar of this team.
Boston's turnaround on the power play has come as it has developed a high-low attack with the extra man. Boston scored goals from the point and down low during the first round, showing a versatility and ability to move the puck that was missing in the past.
The Canadiens' power play has long been their biggest advantage when facing the Bruins. That is no longer the case.
Montreal ended the regular season on an 0-for-23 power play drought then went 2-for-13 in the first round, which makes for a combined success rate of 5.6 percent since March 25. In four regular-season games against the Bruins, the Canadiens' power play scored two goals in 17 opportunities, an 11.8 percent success rate.
The Canadiens' penalty kill was fourth in the NHL this season at 85.1 percent, and Montreal was shorthanded seven times in four games against the Lightning; it allowed two goals on those seven chances.
Milan Lucic -- He is not well-liked in Montreal and the Canadiens will try to get him emotionally invested, believing they can get him off his game by riling him up and having him chase retribution instead of offense. For Lucic, one of the League's best power forwards, it is a fine line he must walk. He needs to use his physical gifts to make room and press the advantage against opposing defenses, but often he becomes personally engaged with an opposing player and loses the plot of what he is supposed to do.
But if Lucic can remain focused on the task at hand in what should be a highly charged series, he will present a matchup nightmare for the Canadiens defense.
Thomas Vanek -- He was seemingly acquired at the trade deadline specifically to make a difference in this series.
In 55 regular-season games against the Bruins, Vanek has scored 30 goals with 32 assists. Extrapolated over 82 games, that translates to a 44-goal, 92-point season against what has consistently been one of the top defensive teams in the NHL.
Furthermore, Vanek had two goals and an assist in three playoff games against the Bruins in 2009-10.
Vanek had one goal in four games in the first round and this is the first time he's playing in the second round since 2007, when his Buffalo Sabres reached the Eastern Conference Final. Since then, Vanek entered these playoffs with seven goals in his previous 10 postseason games.
One would imagine Vanek is due for a breakout, and it would not be the least bit surprising if that happened at the expense of the Bruins.
Bruins will win if … the Bruins don't get caught up in the hype which will surround this series. Boston vs. Montreal is special because it is a rivalry with a deep history, including more than 30 playoff chapters. The teams and fan bases are intimately familiar with that history and the strengths and weaknesses of the current rosters. This series will be full of sideshows and soap operas for the next two weeks. Boston, the better team, has to stay above the fray and concentrate on performing on the ice.
Canadiens will win if … The Canadiens continue to find ways to frustrate the Bruins. Boston invariably comes unhinged against Montreal. Whether it's Subban's antics, or Emelin laying out open-ice hits, or Montreal's speed forcing Boston into taking penalties, something the Canadiens consistently are able to do to the Bruins is get under their skin. If that continues, if Boston's focus shifts from the scoreboard to settling scores, then Montreal should be able to pull off the upset.