Having been pressed to the full at work lately, I haven't had a s much time for a preview as I would have liked. I am hoping that some of my prep can be slowly leaked through as the series goes over the next week or longer.
But as I'm sure you're all as excited as we are for the first meaningful game of the 2008-09 campaign (barring that one where we had to get the last point), so I thought I'd do an abridged little preview to ready the tastebuds.
I would start this post with a proviso before going any further. If I wanted to look through the teams and their statistics and come up with a preview that could have put the Bruins ahead in every category, I could have nearly done it. However, as this is a Canadiens blog and I am charged with doing something a little less mainstream than everyone who got their previews in hours ago anyway, I have managed to find some categories where I feel nos Habitants have an edge over the cavemen.
Without further ado, here are the battles:
1) Top line – Tanguay/Koivu/Kovalev vs. Lucic/Savard/Kessel
This is a tough call. The first problem is that the Habs top line have looked good, but only for a handful of games. The Bruins top line, most notably Kessel and Savard have looked good the entire season (almost).
I think even the most optimistic Habs fan has to give this one to the Bruins in terms of offense.
I will say this, though. The Canadiens top line is made up of three players who can make a top line on their own, just by virtue of being written in. The Bruins top line is not a top line without Savard. As such, it will be easier to smother the Boston line (for ease in targeting the coverage) – a lesson that could be straight from Boston's play book of 2008 on Kovalev.
2) The secondary scoring
There is no doubt the Bruins had more success here this season. But you know what, how many career-best seasons did they have there? The Canadiens by contrast had decent secondary scoring despite pitiful stretches from all their second guns.
The question is whether the momentum in the playoffs will shift or not. Last season, Tomas Plekanec was quite possibly the best forward on our team in the second half of the season. But a change in momentum nullified his input in the playoffs. This season, the Bruins are toting a few Plekanecs in their line-up.
It's for that reason that I am giving the edge to the Canadiens here. It must be the Felipe Alou fan in me, but Kostitsyn has to break out, so does Plekanec. Higgins and Latendresse could also. They will have to to prove me right. Else, I could right be called a blind fool. My gut simply tells me Kostitsyn > Recchi, Pleks > Krejci, Gui > Wheeler and so on.
3) The checking forwards – Higgins vs. Axelsson
Somewhat fortuitously, Chris Higgins seems to have fallen into the role he was born to play. No longer forced into situations where he must produce, he can concentrate on being that intelligent and anticipatory player we all know and love. If I'm Marc Savard, I wouldn't relish a shift with this guy watching me at all. I don't think Koivu gives a toss if Axelsson is on the ice or not. Canadiens win this battle is Chris is deployed in the right way.
4) Top defenceman – Hamrlik vs. Chara
I could make some cockamamie tale about Hamrlik up here, but he does not measure to Chara in stature, skill or even experience. Boston wins this battle in a landslide.
However, if (big if) Markov can come back and be Markov; I feel that Andrei is the best defender in the East and the third behind Lidstrom and Niedermayer in this league. In that case, the Habs would have my edge.
5) The rest of the D
Some Canadiens fans have been kidding themselves when they say the Habs win this battle. Aaron Ward, for example, has oodles of Cup experience and was a main reason our number one line went AWOL last spring. He is what Komisarek should be and isn't. Then you have the steady, simple and obedient play of the others that helped bring (nay, brought) the Jennings trophy home to Boston this season.
Are the slow? Perhaps a bit. Are they deficient in the offensive skills department? Mostly, but Jennings doesn't care about that (especially when the forwards go second in the league on goals). Boston's defenders are a better group than the Habs, Hamrlik and Bouillon or not.
6) Backstops – Price vs. Thomas
Tim Thomas had one of those seasons. He should win the Vezina trophy. But you know what? Huet had one of those seasons and he was let go for nothing. I would never want to write Thomas's season off, but had Carey Price even had a semblance of a good second half, he'd have the edge here. As it is, Boston wins.
Here's one of those categories. Can it carry as much weight as the others? Probably not, but it is a factor. It is a category that the Canadiens will win, I'll tell you why: they need to.
As such, discipline for the Canadiens will be written into the game plan. A lot was made of the Canadiens indiscipline in the regular season at times, but so many times that indiscipline was nothing of the sort. It was puck over the glass or non-call, or stick brush the waist. If you exclude Mike Komisarek from consideration, I actually felt the Habs on the whole were quite a disciplined bunch for most of the season.
I'll tell you why else: Boston's identity requires them to come out and bang. Sure, during the regular season the Bruins fans will tolerate a clean game vs. the Wild. But come playoffs, vs. the abhorrent Canadiens, no mercy will be tolerated. A goal must be answered with a fight. A shot with a cross-check. It's written in their constitution. We saw it a mere week ago.
8) Coaching – Gainey vs. Julien
Only one of these two men will be nominated for the Jack Adams trophy this season. However, only one made brilliant and brave decisions to turn his team around.
Claude Julien sure looked good again at the helm of a team that made it happen. Bob Gainey looked barely adequate at times. Even so, only one of these coaches has won any significant series in the playoffs (either as player or coach).
On top of that, Julien remains unique as a coach for twice being fired from teams when sporting a winning record – first the 19-16-6 Canadiens of 2006, then the 47-24-0 Devils of 2007. That Devils firing undertaken by a GM without peer and instigated based on the testimony of the best goaltender and many of the best students of hockey in the game, tells me all I'll ever need to know about Claude. Gainey is a better coach. Canadiens edge the Bruins here.
9) Extra gear
I'll list players I know have an extra gear on both sides:
Koivu, Kovalev and Mark Recchi.
Not that they won't be happy with status quo, as the East winners, but the Bruins will mostly have to make do with that. They do not have a Koivu, not many teams do. They have Recchi, but even he can't reach Kovalev control of a game. Of course, this is dependent on the players actually stepping up the rate. But since we can count on Koivu, the Canadiens already have the edge.
The question that lingers here is do any other players have that gear? Well, one could make an argument for Aaron Ward, and maybe if you're generous Chara or Schneider, but beyond that, it's youngsters with little history to go on. Both teams have intriguing possibilities like Kessel, Wideman, Kostitsyn and Lapierre.
The Bruins prepared for these playoffs by practicing winning and not much else. They came back a number of times from goal deficits, but they never had to deal with a losing streak, a split in the dressing room, or things generally not going their way.
The Canadiens, if you can look at it in a positive light, earned their 3 credits this semester. They've had lessons on every topic and in the end they pulled it out. Bad losses, they've had a few to recover from. Non-existent goaltending, they're well versed. In a nutshell, nothing could happen to the Canadiens in game one or two that hasn't happened to them already. Nothing could rattle them more than they've been rattled. The Bruins? I'm not so sure.
Even so, the Bruins way of preparing is tried and tested. If they win, they know how to win again. If they go down a goal, they know they more often than not come back. If things go their way, as the experts predict they will, they'll know full well what to do with the situation.
Even at a stretch, it's hard to find things other than faith to put the Canadiens ahead. On the tally, I have a draw, but in fairness the Bruins have captured the points cards here with all defenders, goaltenders and top line scoring going to them.
We knew there would be ifs for our Habs, and they are big ones. But if Markov ever came back, we'd pull closer. If Koivu and Kovalev both play like the men-possessed they can be, then even a giant Slovak can't stop them. If Kostitsyn scores a few early in the series, the Bruins will have a lot of reorganisation to do. If Higgins is deployed as a shadow and plays like he has been, he could be a major factor. Dare I say, if Price actually plays like he has done in the past (the good times), then playing a goon line won't look so smart.
And, if dogmatic Julien is forced out of his comfort zone, well then we're on our way.