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Five Questions: Penalty kill among Canadiens' issues

by Arpon Basu /

The end of the Montreal Canadiens' regular season left a team that had been riding a confident high with lots of questions to answer. But winning their final two games in rather convincing fashion may have provided some clarity.

Still, for a team that finished last in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, some questions remain as to how the Canadiens will react to being favored in a first-round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Here are five of them:

1. Will Michel Therrien be able to adjust on the fly?

The Canadiens coach, in his first season back behind the bench in Montreal, has seemingly done no wrong all season. Essentially every move Therrien made through the first 35 games of the season appeared to work.

From allowing rookie Alex Galchenyuk to continue his development in Montreal, to picking Brendan Gallagher to make the team out of camp, to how he handled the integration of P.K. Subban into his system after a contract dispute delayed his start, Therrien delicately maneuvered around every challenge.

But when the team lost some intensity after clinching a playoff spot April 11, Therrien’s adjustments took some time to work -- to the tune of five losses in six games. He doesn’t have time like that in a best-of-7 series.

2. Can the penalty kill turn it around?

Montreal's penalty kill was a problem in the first half of the season, turned around a fair bit after the acquisition of Jeff Halpern off waivers from the New York Rangers, then finished the season in a downright tailspin.

Montreal allowed 11 goals in its final 36 shorthanded situations, a dismal success rate of 69.4 percent. Overall, that stretch saw the Canadiens' penalty kill drop from 82.4 percent to 79.8 percent, No. 23 in the League.

The pieces are there for the penalty kill to be successful, but they need to come together in a hurry.

3. Which Carey Price will show up?

Will it be the one who had an .856 save percentage in winning two of his final eight appearances of the regular season? Or will it be the one who had a .916 save percentage up until April 9? The answer to this question could be the most important one in determining the Canadiens’ playoff hopes.

Therrien decided to sit Price for the final game of the season at the Toronto Maple Leafs, the site of perhaps the worst start of his young career when he allowed three goals on four shots April 13. Therrien said it was planned in advance that Peter Budaj would start that game and that he liked Price’s performances in his past two games, a 3-2 loss at the New Jersey Devils and a 4-2 win at the Winnipeg Jets.

It shouldn’t take long to determine if those last two starts were indicative of a turnaround in Price’s game.

4. How will Montreal’s young players handle the pressure?

Two of the biggest contributors to the Canadiens’ season have been their dynamic rookie forwards, Gallagher and Galchenyuk. The two passed a big test in not only surviving their first seasons in the NHL, but thriving; each is in contention for the Calder Trophy.

The playoffs are another hurdle each will need to clear. Their play thus far would suggest that neither Gallagher nor Galchenyuk will be buried by the pressure of the playoffs, but no one can know for sure until each of them proves it when it counts.

That time is now.

5. Who will play on defense, and what will the pairings be?

The loss of defenseman Alexei Emelin to a knee injury on April 6 left the Canadiens defense in a state of disarray, one Therrien is still trying to solve.

The top five defensemen are set with P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Raphael Diaz and Francis Bouillon, but one of Davis Drewiske, rookie Jarred Tinordi or Yannick Weber could fill the sixth slot. Tinordi played the final two games of the regular season and did very well, providing some of the physical play lost when Emelin went down and playing big minutes on the penalty kill, so he may have the inside track.

The pairings have been changing during the past two weeks, but Therrien tried a combination of Markov-Subban, Gorges-Diaz and Bouillon-Tinordi in the final game of the regular season and it appeared to work.

Then again, the pairings have not remained the same for more than a couple of games at a time during the past few weeks.

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