DETROIT — Only two teams in the NHL swept the Red Wings in the regular season, one of them being the Montreal Canadiens.
Playing the Habs in an Eastern Conference semifinal, the Wings will have to find away to not just win one game but four in a best-of-7 series to advance in the NHL playoffs.
It may prove to be a daunting task, as Montreal has the best goaltender in the world between the pipes for them in Carey Price. Leading the NHL in the regular season in wins (44), goals-against average (1.96) and save percentage (.933), Price was the first goalie since Ed Belfour in 1990-91 to rank first in all three categories.
Price is a world-class goaltender and has gotten his team this far into the postseason with some impressive individual efforts.
In terms of shots, getting the top goalie in the league to crack won’t be about quantity, as Price only seems to get better as the shots pile up. He has faced 30-or-more shots on 35 occasions combined between the regular season and playoffs — including four times in Montreal’s six-game series with the Ottawa Senators — and has a 1.87 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage with a 21-9-5 record.
If it’s not quantity, then it must be quality shots to beat the 27-year-old Price. However, attaining those quality shots involves getting to prime scoring areas and going up against a strong defensive corps led by P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin won’t be easy. The additions of Tom Gilbert and Jeff Petry on the back end have made the Canadiens defense quite stingy in front of Price.
Offensively, Montreal isn’t nearly as scary as the Lightning was in the first round. Montreal ranked 20th in the NHL during the regular season, averaging just 2.61 goals per game. The playoffs haven’t been much better, as they scored just 12 goals in six games against the Sens. However, with Price in net the Habs haven’t needed much offensive support as they continue to find ways to win.
Top-line forward Max Pacioretty is the team’s biggest offensive weapon scoring 37 goals in the regular season, 10 of which proved to be game-winning goals. The former University of Michigan Wolverine has a knack for scoring from all over and in big moments as well. Additionally, the 32-year-old Tomas Plekanec provides much-needed leadership on a young team up front and finished second on the team behind Pacioretty in goals (26) and points (60).
While Pacioretty and Plekanec lead the way, the key to Montreal’s success doesn’t necessarily lie with any one player in particular. For the Canadiens, it’s more about timely goal scoring, as the forwards seem to take turns scoring crucial goals with a 19-6-10 record in one-goal games during the regular season.
Three of their four wins in the first round were by a one-goal margin with two of them being decided in overtime. Brian Flynn, Alex Galchenyuk and Dale Weise tallied the game-winning goals in Game 1, Game 2 and Game 3 respectively, prominently displaying their varying sources of decisive goal scoring.
If the Wings are going to have success in this series, it will once again stem from special teams.
After having one of the top penalty kills in the league in the regular season — ranked seventh at 83.7 percent — the Canadiens allowed five power-play goals on 20 opportunities to the Senators last round. Ottawa’s power play came into the playoffs ranked 26th at 15.5 percent during the regular season so their success in the series is a bit of an anomaly.
Drawing the same matchup between playoff opponents on a nightly basis during the playoffs may have exposed some weaknesses in Montreal’s special teams. With the Wings still humming along at 21 percent, this should be a situation where Detroit will have the upper hand.
The Canadiens power play is much different than what the Wings have seen for the last 12 days. Unlike the Lightning who relied on superstar forwards Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson, Montreal has a tendency to do just the opposite and work through the blue line on the man advantage.
Subban and Markov generate much of the Canadiens’ success on the power play, as they look to shoot from the point with forwards crashing the net, looking for rebounds. It hasn’t been much though, as they only ranked 23rd in the regular season at 16.5 percent — worst among teams that qualified for the playoffs — and converted on just 1-of-20 opportunities in six games against the Senators.
For the Wings to win this series, it will be about capitalizing on opportunities when they present themselves. Price is too good of a goalie and the Canadiens are too stingy of a team to send shots over the net or off of goal posts. As simple as it sounds, the series could prove to be much more complicating if scoring becomes an issue.