Each Wednesday throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the game that intrigues him most that night. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
I don't recall a team being on a run quite like the Ottawa Senators were on to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Maybe the New Jersey Devils back in 1988, when Sean Burke came off the Canadian Olympic team and they went on that run to get into a postseason. Maybe that was close to what the Senators have done to get in, but I can't really recall another one in our modern history where it's been the case of a team going on this type of run to get into the playoffs.
I know the Los Angeles Kings had some great runs to get into the playoffs before going on Stanley Cup winning runs in the postseason, but people expected them to be in. Ottawa came out of nowhere and was basically dead in the water in early February.
That's why the Eastern Conference First Round series between the Senators and Montreal Canadiens is so intriguing. The Canadiens rode Carey Price the distance and were a shoo-in for a long time; the Senators rode Andrew Hammond and never were a shoo-in until they got in.
Game 1 is Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, CBC, TVA). Here is my breakdown:
Pluses: They've been playing playoff hockey in what was almost a single-game elimination for how long now? Two months. Yeah, that's just to get here. To me that's a plus. They don't have to elevate their game. Their game has been tight. Their game has been in the playoffs. They don't need to change the way they're playing.
Another plus for them is they're pressure-free right now. Yes they got here, but they're playing pressure-free. Nobody expected them to be here. I could hear that in Mark Stone's voice when we were talking to him the other day on the NHL Network.
Are the expectations there? Sure they are. Are there internal expectations? Absolutely. The will and the want for them to be great are there. But you know what, they don't have the pressure that some other teams are under now. They're here and they can just go play.
In addition, this run has really been because of a lot of their young players. That's a huge plus.
Hammond came on and has been great.
Mika Zibanejad is showing a lot of what general manager Bryan Murray and his staff thought they would see from him when they drafted him.
Mike Hoffman is doing a lot of what Luke Richardson told me he was doing down in Binghamton of the American Hockey League the past few years.
Stone was a sixth-round pick. I mean, are you kidding me? To be playing this well as a sixth-round pick is amazing.
Those are just some of the newer young players. Kyle Turris has matured into a No. 1 center. Clarke MacArthur has emerged as a counted upon offensive player.
In talking to Murray, he told me that he's so happy that they're here and he's really happy for the young players to get a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs because they're very deserving of the opportunity to do so.
Minuses: I don't really see many minuses to be honest with you. I guess if you want to call lack of experience a minus that's one because they don't have a lot of players in their group who have a lot of postseason experience.
Chris Phillips and Chris Neil are there, but they're not being counted upon to play. They're doing what they can behind the scenes. They don't have a Daniel Alfredsson in that group anymore. Those are minuses because it certainly would benefit the Senators if they had a bit more of a veteran presence from some of their top players, but at the same time I don't really feel it's going to derail them not having it.
There is something special happening with the Senators and there appears to be some destiny with this team. Now if that destiny was just for them to get into the playoffs that's still amazing; if it leads them to go past one round or two rounds or even win the Cup, only time and only the man upstairs knows. But I'll say this, their story is very compelling and they can definitely give Montreal all it can handle because they can skate, they're unafraid of the stage, and they're playing loose and pressure-free. There is a lot to be said for that now.
Pluses: Price is the guy. He's had a season for the ages. His season is arguably if not the best individual season for a goalie in Canadiens history. That's saying something huge because of Jacques Plante, because of Ken Dryden, and because of Patrick Roy.
Price is obviously a huge plus. He'll be the difference if the Canadiens win this series.
In addition to Price, P.K. Subban is having another Norris Trophy-type season. He had 60 points. He was a plus-21. PLUS-21! That's huge. That's incredible.
People want to keep poking holes in Subban's game, but all he keeps doing is getting better and filling those holes. There's nothing wrong with his game. He's legit. He's a star. He's a Norris Trophy winner and he could be again.
Price should be the Hart Trophy winner. He definitely will be the Vezina Trophy winner.
Pluses? Yeah, those two will do.
Minuses: The big minus is the health of Max Pacioretty because the Canadiens are not an explosive enough team without him. They have to score by committee.
They have Subban on the back end who is a game breaker. They have Price who can steal you a game. Pacioretty is their game breaker up front, which is why he's such a big loss if he can't play. He's a dynamic goal scorer. He can fly. He gets separation. He gets breakaways all the time. And he's no longer a perimeter player.
Pacioretty had 37 goals and was a plus-38. When you can get that kind of production from a player that says a lot. It's one thing to score goals and improve your goal scoring, it's another thing to do it as a plus-38 because that means he's not cheating the game to score.
Pacioretty is a huge loss if he can't play. He's irreplaceable for the Canadiens.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Speed and pace
In terms of game tempo this should be one of the faster series in the playoffs, especially if Pacioretty is able to come back and play.
Based on the proximity, the distance between these two teams, this rivalry will be ratcheted up on and off the ice.
3. Karlsson and Subban
There's no other series in the playoffs that features two former Norris Trophy winners. Senators captain Erik Karlsson and Subban could be finalists for the Norris again this season. The same thing I said about Subban, with people poking holes in his game all the time, can be said about Karlsson. All he does is get better and help the Senators. There is a combined 126 points between these two players this season.