The Ottawa Senators were rewarded for their incredible late-season surge toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs with what might have been the best possible matchup in the opening round.
The Senators won their past three games against the Montreal Canadiens by a combined score of 13-5, including a 4-2 win at home on Feb. 18, the first NHL start for goaltender Andrew Hammond.
He would go on to win a few more after that.
The only playoff series the Senators have won since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 was against the Canadiens in 2013.
That five-game series got nasty right away, with Senators defenseman Eric Gryba knocking Canadiens center Lars Eller out of the series with an open-ice hit in Game 1.
The teams had no real rivalry prior to that series despite Ottawa and Montreal being 125 miles apart. They did after that, and the Senators have given the Canadiens trouble ever since winning that series.
Aside from the history between the teams, this series will feature compelling matchups at key positions.
In goal, Hammond will continue his storybook ride by matching up against the favorite to win the Vezina and Hart trophies, Carey Price.
Price led the NHL in goals-against average (1.96), save percentage (.933) and wins, setting a new Canadiens record with 44 victories.
He was clearly the best goaltender in the NHL this season, but Hammond might have been the best during the final quarter with a 1.79 GAA, a .941 save percentage and 20-1-2 record.
As great as Price has been, he did not fare well against Ottawa. In two games, he had a 3.03 GAA and .887 save percentage, one of three teams against which Price had a sub-.900 save percentage against this season.
Adding to the star power of the series, two past Norris Trophy winners, and candidates to win it again this season, will go head to head.
Senators captain Erik Karlsson and Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban are two of the most electrifying players at their position in the NHL, both able to change a game with their skating and ability to create plays in the offensive zone.
The Senators appear to be a team of destiny this season, and drawing the Canadiens in the playoffs will add to that aura. But there are 10 Canadiens who felt the sting of that playoff defeat two years ago and will be highly motivated to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
The Canadiens are built around an elite player at each position, but the leader at forward is a question mark heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Left wing Max Pacioretty is the engine behind the offense, one of the rare players who can score on a seemingly routine shot, and one who can tilt the ice toward the offensive zone and drive possession.
When coach Michel Therrien needs to break the opposing team's momentum, Pacioretty jumps on the ice.
This season he has grown into the role of important penalty-killer, pairing with center Tomas Plekanec to form a defensively responsible, yet offensively dangerous, tandem on the top unit.
Pacioretty's availability for the playoffs will be clarified this week after he sustained an upper-body injury April 5 against the Florida Panthers, crashing awkwardly into the boards after he was knocked down by a hit.
Pacioretty did not play in the final two regular-season games, but Therrien said there was a possibility he could play in Game 1.
Pacioretty and his 37 goals are important because the Canadiens lack other sources of consistent offense.
Plekanec and third-year forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher each scored 20 goals, but no one else did. Centers David Desharnais and Lars Eller, and right wing Dale Weise were the only other forwards to hit double digits.
Bottom-six role players Brandon Prust, Jacob De La Rose and former Buffalo Sabres Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn provide strong play defensively but pose little threat to score.
When the Senators' season turned around in mid-February, it seemed like a different line or player emerged with a key performance on an almost nightly basis. The result was they were able to play a four-line game.
They might not have any superstars up front, but they have depth and a balanced attack. The Senators have five 20-goal scorers (and Bobby Ryan had 18).
Rookie right wing Mark Stone, who had 50 of his 64 points at even strength, emerged as a legitimate top-six forward playing alongside center Kyle Turris. He finished the season with a nine-game point streak (eight goals, five assists) and was among the League leaders in takeaways.
"He's been good for a long time," Senators coach Dave Cameron said of Stone. "He's been good right from the get go, and he's really started getting rewarded for it in the last while.
"Just real good hockey IQ, sees the ice, unbelievable stick. Wants the puck, wants to be a difference-maker. Whatever line he's been on has been real good. He's driving us a little bit."
Whether it's been Milan Michalek (injured) or Clarke MacArthur (back from a concussion) on the left side, that's been the Senators' very effective top line.
Center Mika Zibanejad's game has grown a lot in the second half; he gives the second line speed and a physical presence. Ryan struggled down the stretch, a concern going into the postseason. If the Senators are going to have success, they will need him to pick up his game.
Rookie Mike Hoffman led the Senators with 27 goals because of his speed and soft hands. He has been inconsistent in the second half and found himself shuffled off the second line at times.
The third line of Erik Condra, who was close to being traded before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline, with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and rookie Curtis Lazar emerged as a strong possession line (each has positive shot attempt numbers) and chipped in some key goals down the stretch. Pageau scored the winner in the playoff-clinching game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Cameron isn't afraid to have them on the ice against an opponent's top line.
Energy guy Zack Smith, veteran David Legwand, and Alex Chiasson, who was expected to contribute more than nine goals, give the Senators a decent fourth line. They each average at least 12:02 of ice time.
The pairing of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov runs the show. They face the top opposition, they play the bulk of the minutes of the power play, and when they are on the ice at even strength the Canadiens are in the offensive zone more often than not.
With the scoring difficulties up front, this pairing is a great equalizer because Subban and Markov normally come out ahead in the possession game against the opposition's top players.
The second pair received a tremendous boost when general manager Marc Bergevin acquired Jeff Petry from the Edmonton Oilers prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. After taking some time to get adjusted, Petry has proven to be a threat offensively because of his high-end skating. He has been playing with Alexei Emelin, a physical, stay-at-home defenseman who had his ups and downs this season but who was excellent in the playoffs last year against the Boston Bruins in the second round.
The top six on defense has been filled out by Nathan Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert, another pair of mobile defensemen who can get the puck out of the zone quickly but who are not very good at getting the puck away from the opposition in order to do that.
Veterans Sergei Gonchar and Mike Weaver, and rookie Greg Pateryn, give Therrien reliable and varied options if one of the defensemen become unavailable or are not performing to expectations. Pateryn in particular left a strong impression on the coaching staff.
Captain Erik Karlsson had, like the rest of the team, a poor 20 games to start the season, but he recovered to lead NHL defensemen in scoring and is contender for the Norris Trophy as the League's top defenseman.
Karlsson's partner, veteran Marc Methot, missed the first 35 games with an injury. His return stabilized the top pair and allowed the other defensemen to be slotted into better positions.
Patrick Wiercioch has for the most part overcome some early season inconsistencies (he was scratched for 19 games) and settled in on the second pair with steady two-way player Cody Ceci.
Mark Borowiecki and Eric Gryba, the two most physical defensemen, make up the third pair.
The Senators don't have the depth on defense they do up front and there's a pretty big drop off after the top pair.
Carey Price is the single biggest reason the Canadiens had the successful regular season they did, and he is what makes them a very difficult out in the playoffs.
Price led the NHL or shared the lead in each of the four major categories: wins, goals-against average and save percentage. He put up those numbers despite facing a steady barrage of shots and playing on a team with below-average possession metrics, one that had a tendency to get pinned in its defensive zone.
The Canadiens will go as far as Price takes them, but he has finished the past three seasons on the injured list and watched in street clothes as his team got eliminated from the playoffs two years in a row.
Backup Dustin Tokarski earned the job based on how well he did replacing Price when he was injured in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, but had an inconsistent season.
If Price goes down to injury again, the Canadiens will likely leave shortly thereafter.
Andrew Hammond has been the story of the NHL since being called up from the American Hockey League on Jan. 21 and getting his first start Feb. 18 against the Montreal Canadiens after injuries to Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner.
The 27-year-old, signed in 2013 as a free agent from Bowling Green State University, is 20-1-2 as a starter and the biggest reason the Senators rallied from 14 points out of the playoffs Feb. 10 to complete an unlikely comeback.
Hammond struggled with a poor team in the AHL before his callup, but he has been fundamentally solid for the Senators and shown he's capable of making a game-changing save when needed.
His biggest strength might be his laid-back personality. He shrugged off all the "Hamburglar" hype and was a calm presence, which looks like it's rubbed off on the team.
"He's quietly very confident. He's very calm," said Borowiecki, who played with Hammond for Binghamton. "He's always been like that. He was like that in the [AHL] too.
"I think that's the key up here. As a young guy myself going through that, if you get too up or too down it really takes a toll on you mentally and emotionally. He's done a great job of staying even-keeled and I think it reflects in his play."
Therrien takes a lot of heat for a coach who has earned about 64 percent of the points available in his three seasons.
There are several reasons for that; one is how Therrien has been unable to get any consistency in his forward combinations, or how the power play has been far below average for the better part of two seasons despite having the offensive talent to make it work, or the poor puck-possession metrics.
But Therrien wins, and he showed an ability in the playoffs last season to make adjustments on the fly before major problems manifested themselves.
The nature of his job and his market makes it so everything Therrien does is criticized, but all he needs to do is point to his record in his second stint as Canadiens coach and say nothing else.
Cameron replaced Paul MacLean on Dec. 8 when the Senators were 11-11-5. The Senators are 32-15-8 since Cameron was promoted from his role as MacLean's assistant.
There's been some serendipity to the success under Cameron. He didn't have any choice but to play Hammond after injuries to Anderson and Lehner. Injuries to Smith and veteran forward Chris Neil and defenseman Chris Phillips forced young players into the lineup, and they have been up to the challenge.
Cameron gets credit for making the Senators a team that plays a more aggressive game, emphasizing the forecheck. He made it a point to have them skate more in practice after he took over and work on their passing and puck-handling skills. He built a game on speed and pressure and it's paying off.
Cameron, a Prince Edward Island native, brought a folksy, down-to-earth personality behind the bench. He was seen laughing before a shootout against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a critical game near the end of the season, joking with Borowiecki and Gryba, who have one goal between them this season, about when they would shoot.
Cameron is a playoff rookie behind the bench. It will be interesting to see how he does matching wits with the opposing coach in a postseason environment.
The power play has been a source of concern for a year and a half.
They have an ideal defense pairing with Subban and Markov, elite sniper Pacioretty, and forwards Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Plekanec and Desharnais who should make the power play purr. But it doesn't, and it hasn't in quite some time.
The only time in the past 18 months or so it's been a positive factor was in the second round of last year's playoffs against the Bruins; it was a major factor in winning the series.
The power play has to catch fire again in this year's playoffs.
The penalty kill has been solid all season, anchored by Price but supported by a strong group of two-way forwards that includes Plekanec, Pacioretty, Eller, Prust and De La Rose.
The Senators ranked 22nd on the power play with a 16.8 percent efficiency, so that is an area that will have to improve. They had three players tie for their lead in power-play goals with Karlsson, MacArthur and Legwand each scoring six.
The power play runs through Karlsson, who led them with 30 extra-man points, almost twice as many as the next most productive player (Kyle Turris, 16).
The penalty kill ranked 11th and was strong down the stretch. The Senators gave up six power-play goals in the last 16 games.
Center - MTL
GOALS: 20 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 46
SOG: 163 | +/-: 8
-- The forward is the primary candidate to replace Pacioretty if he is unable to start the series. If Pacioretty is in, the Canadiens will need Galchenyuk to provide a consistent source of secondary offense.
He had a quiet second half of the season offensively but has the talent necessary to contribute in the playoffs.
The No. 3 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft is a dynamic player with the rare ability to beat defenders 1-on-1, and a quick, dangerous wrist shot he can get off in tight quarters. Galchenyuk needs to place himself in a position to use those talents in high-percentage scoring areas more often.
If he is able to do that, the offensive issues will be greatly lessened.
Goalie - OTT
GAA: 1.79 | SVP: .941
-- The Hamburglar's arrival sparked a remarkable comeback. He went 20-1-2 as a starter, including 10-0-2 on the road with three shutouts. He had a .941 save percentage and a 1.79 goals against average.
"I've never had a stretch of hockey like this in my life," Hammond said. "I don't think anybody can explain it."
The Senators were the hottest team in the NHL over the last two months, but they will be an underdog in the playoffs.
Hammond's play will be a critical to whether they can pull off an upset and continue their incredible run.
Canadiens will win if … They utilize their tremendous team speed to keep the puck in the offensive zone more often and allow Price some time to breathe.
The power play has not been efficient all season, but that problem is compounded by the fact the Canadiens are ranked in the bottom half of the League in power-play opportunities. It is difficult to draw penalties when you are defending, and the Canadiens need to be the ones pushing the play to the other end of the ice on a more regular basis.
If they do that a little better than they did in the regular season, the Canadiens have the goaltender to defeat any team in the NHL.
Having Pacioretty in the lineup wouldn't hurt.
Senators will win if … Stone and Hammond can continue their regular-season success in their first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Senators have been facing a playoff-like pressure in essentially must-win games for the past month; now it's the real thing.
Opposition coaches will be game planning and paying particular attention to Stone and Hammond, breaking down their games and figuring out ways to stop Stone and exploit whatever weaknesses Hammond might have.
How they respond to the increased attention that comes with playing the same opponent in a playoffs series will go a long way toward determining the Senators' playoff success.
Written by Arpon Basu and Chris Stevenson