The playoffs are upon us. Before settling into your playoff chair adorned by items of superstition, let's take a moment to assess this series coolly and calmly.
We know the Habs handled the Senators to a 2-1-1 record this year. Oh wait, what's that you say? The Sens were 2-1-1 too? Oh dear, this could be close. let's look:
Craig Anderson – Carey Price
It is oft forgotten that goaltenders are not some outside element in hockey, some superhero last resort there to save their inept buddies from certain failure. In reality, the majority of what a goaltender does (i.e., covering angles to discourage shots, dealing with innocuous shots, playing the puck) he does in concert with the defensive teammates around him. When one thinks of a defensive system, one should think of the goaltender as the first piece of such a system (as the Devils always have).
In that light, we have an interesting comparison on our hands. Craig Anderson enters the post-season with the best ever season-end save percentage since people began recording the stat. Carey Price enters with a shabby 0.905. Anderson when playing was leading a team that relied on defence almost entirely to win and was well on the way to capturing the trophy for least goals allowed. Price at his best does the same, but got his wins this season anyway because of greater doggedness even when this primary approach went out the window.
When I watch Craig Anderson, what I see is the goalie that Price is at his most effective, yet doing it all the time. He has let in his bad goals (early goals in Canadiens games come to mind), yet his rebound control and attention to following any and all plays make the Senators defensive system less porous than the rest. Carey is perfectly capable of doing the same. And when we laud him for good games, it is almost always the case that he was slickest at directing pucks that needed to be deflected to corners and smothered pucks that needed to be smothered. When both guys play predictably, their fleet-footed colleagues clear up messes very quickly. Anderson’s personal stats are the reflection of his success in this regard. Carey’s success here is reflected in his team’s position.
Budaj has ridden a season of good goal support to a rather incredible win-loss record, but his statistics and his tendency to allow early goals are worrisome. I cannot say much about Robin Lehner other than what I see on the page, which is that he seems to fill in fairly well for his colleagues, whether they be injured or taking a night off.
In goaltending, I think it is only sensible to give the edge to Ottawa. Anderson has been collecting his wins and stats by a commitment to approach and the athleticism to follow through. Price has been flirting with form that would provide the same sort of record-setting stats, but has not been able to tame his lapses as fully. For the moment, Anderson rides in higher. The same must be said of the backups, with Lehner offering a closer approximation of his colleague than Budaj can for Price at his best.
Erik Karlsson -- Pernell Karl Subban
This is the beginning of a very important rivalry in this part of the league. Two teams that live next door to one another somehow managed to parley later picks into the Norris defenders that everyone wants on their squads. Karlsson has one trophy in his cabinet and to watch him, could have another soon enough. Subban is for my money the most versatile defender I’ve seen in the Canadiens sweater since I started watching, and the most versatile defender I have watched in any game in the past few years (including Karlsson).
Both guys garner their Norris credentials from what they do on the powerplay (because the flawed Norris voting asks those who never really watch defenders to try and rate them), but both have skills that go far beyond.
I have a more intimate appreciation for Subban, who I still maintain is better in the defensive end than the attacking side. If he’s tasked with shutting down a player, you will not see an impact from that player. And PK’s quickness and agility make for more puck wins and clean ups than 95% of defenders can provide.
Karlsson has slick skates too and seems to have improved his defensive game by eliminating the aggressiveness that all youngsters wishing to carry the team on their shoulders have. Because he can skate, the gaps that open in the Ottawa end are quickly closed when he’s on (like Subban), and his offensive skills make any puck lost in his corner a dangerous opportunity for counter-attack. I don’t see that he has Subban’s muscular game really, but I liken him to a younger Markov in the defensive end, efficiency being the name of the game.
This is the battle for the headline. Though they may not see much action one against the other. Both teams will be staking a large hope in winning this battle.
Sergei Gonchar – Andrei Markov
The two Russian maestros will also figure heavily in the outcome of the series. We all know that the return of Andrei Markov after several incomplete seasons has coincided with an air of confidence not seen in sometime on the banks of the St. Lawrence. Gonchar doesn’t get as much coverage, but he deserves credit for covering the very large gap left by Karlsson this season (Gonchar was next in TOI) and playing his role on the second best defensive team in the NHL.
Both players in their prime were regulars in the discussion on the best defenders in the league. I think it’s fair to say that both have seen a step back. Yet both are flourishing in their new reduced roles. Neither Gonchar nor Markov seem like the defensive pillars of their teams (especially Markov at a misleading team-worst -9), but looks are deceiving. Markov has been stabilizing and offers the Canadiens the chance to use players like Weber or Tinordi without enormous levels of consternation that this would usually bring forth. I have a feeling that a Gonchar not stretched beyond his strengths offers the same to the Sens.
You’ll notice I’ve said nothing yet of the PP. Both of these defenders are well established PP generals who can orchestrate a goal or two.
Chris Phillips – Alexei Emelin
These guys are matched for unfortunate reasons. Both are currently injured, though Phillips is certainly not hurt to the same extent as Emelin. I use these two as an important highlight. I think it is fair to say that neither has received the full hype that those aforementioned have over the years, yet both are very important to their respective causes. Emelin being lost to the Canadiens has led to what seems an endless search for defensive efficacy that the team was using to dominate the Northeast division for weeks. Phillips quiet effectiveness is surely a factor in Ottawa’s possession of the best goaltending stats in the league and near-season-long grasp of the Jennings trophy.
Jared Cowen – Jarred Tinordi
Two big guys taken with two big draft picks. This matchup is another one only in the bud. Cowen holds the current advantage, having a full 82-game season under his belt, together with NHL playoff exposure. Tinordi, the fresher, won’t be called upon to do quite as much as Cowen, I suspect. In his case, it will be the absence of mistakes rather than laying his mark on the game that will constitute a good result.
Marc Methot – Josh Gorges
Two more defensive minded players who are relied upon to deliver heavily on the penalty-killing mandate. In years past, Josh Gorges was regarded as premiere in this regard on a team that excelled in shutting down the opposition PP attack. But the luster from the Canadiens PK has escaped a bit. Ottaw on the other hand possessed the number one (and very stingy at 88%) PK in the NHL. Marc Methot was a key addition to the team in that regard, as he led the team in blocked shots and allowed his goaltenders to post almost unworldly 0.959 (Lehner) and 0.925 (Anderson) save percentages. For contrast, see Carey Price at 75th in the league on PK save percentage with 0.804.
The cast of others will probably actually play a greater role than most of the aforementioned pairs above. Both teams preach a defensive awareness to build an offensive outbreak and both teams rely on the full cast of six defenders nightly.
Notably among the other for Montreal is Raphael Diaz, whose remarkable emergence at the beginning of the season was muted by a long stint out of the lineup. What is probably most difficult to remember is how Diaz’s defensive presence was actually the biggest boon to the Canadiens. His return will go a long way to cover the loss of Emelin.
Notable on the Senators is Wiercioch who posted a respectable 19 points in 42 games and has enough speed and skill to make Markov and Price look like fools at least once a season.
Just as it is difficult for Norris voters, it is difficult for someone who watches a couple of handfuls of Senators games to do justice to a comparison with the team he watches night in, night out.
My feeling is that this comparison is a near dead heat. Although I think Subban is the better defender for my tastes, I will not deny that Karlsson has earned his reputation. Although I’ve learned over a decade to appreciate Andrei Markov’s subtleties, I can’t begrudge Gonchar a formidable career and a strong year himself.
The edge in health goes to the Senators for the moment, as Emelin’s loss looms over the Canadiens. Phillips, I suspect will be back.
There is inexperience on both sides. Cowen is a sophomore like Diaz, and Wiercioch only has 30-odd games over Tinrodi.
The Senators defensive corps has demonstrated efficiency in following a defensive mandate with a league lead in penalty killing and a second place in goals against. The Canadiens cannot boast the same, but their strength is greater in launching attack from the back, where the trifecta of Markov-Subban-Diaz is unparalleled. The Senators will gain with Karlsson’s return, but will be hard pressed to stay so impenetrable at the back while trying to run with the Canadiens.
Defensive corps: Draw
Chris Neil – Brandon Prust
Like it or not Habs fans, the whistles that so help the Canadiens and other rule-abiding teams in the season go missing tonight and beyond. It is in these moments that players like Chris Neil and Brandon Prust step into the spotlight.
Chris Neil has been a thorn in the side of the Canadiens for living memory. Every time he plays the Habs, he is noticed, nearly every time he plays, he seems to figure in the most dangerous attacks. This season he was the Sens leader in goals created against the Canadiens (creating 1.48 goals per 60, and 1.63 per 60 at ES). He must be viewed as the danger he is, lest the Canadiens wish to dig early holes for themselves.
Much to my own surprise, it seems to me that Brandon Prust fills nearly the identical role for the Canadiens. Sure he can fight if we want him to, but his greatest value seems to come from muscling opportunities in close spaces. Prust didn’t have the same success in his 3 games against the Senators as Neil did against the Habs, but over a season his play showed glimpses of the same.
Kyle Turris – Tomas Plekanec
Both these guys are the top minute centres on their teams, both are used in all situations. Both can be said to be each team’s number one centre.
For my tastes, Plekanec holds a massive edge on Turris in both usefulness and threat. I rank Plekanec as the Canadiens best player on many nights, and have been doing so for season after season now. He can score, pass, complement a PP and lead a PK. That said, it is time to parlay his versatility into a dominant playoff round or two. He has rarely left his mark on a playoff game and certainly not on a series. With a close series at other positions, this advantage at centre is Plekanec’s to press.
Turris for his part does a fine job considering the circumstances. But I don’t think I’m alone in seeing him as a player in growth. To his advantage are his established linemates and the uber-dogged Daniel Alfredsson who can make most centres lives easier.
Daniel Alfredsson – Max Pacioretty
Both teams find their best offensive weapon on the wing. Alfredsson needs no introduction, and his early playoff no shows are a thing of the past. Pacioretty has emerged with a couple of team-leading seasons as a new brand of power forward using his lanky speed and frequent shots to wreak havoc in offensive zones.
I must confess, even as a Habs fan, I have greater admiration for Alfredsson in this pair. If there is a tight game where goals aren’t coming, I have seen his extra gears far more times than Pacioretty’s to date. But hockey is a team game, of course, and while Alfredsson vs. Pacioretty might end in tears, Alfie does not play with David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher, nor does he look down his lineup and see 20 goalscorers galore.
Jakob Silfverberg – Brendan Gallagher
I highlight this duo to make a point. Both franchises are obtaining a new face. Montreal has morphed from the team of Saku Koivu to that with Subban and Pacioretty at the forefront and with recent support from Gallagher and Galchenyuk. Ottawa will bid farewell to the ubiquitous Alfredsson one day, and his place will be taken by the like of Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad.
Silfverberg did not perhaps put up a Calder campaign to remember, but he still managed 10 goals and 19 points in his 48-game debut. I’d also say that as the season wore on, his role expanded and his contribution grew as well. His contribution against the Habs alone, where he was involved in 4 goals, creating 1.12 per 60 and a key role in his teams PP success against the Habs and Price.
As Habs fans, we all know the arguments for Gallagher. He never gives up and has the talent to make that noteworthy. There’s a good argument to be made that Gallagher is the player of the season for the Habs (saying a lot for a rookie) and we certainly have to look no further in our search for explanations as to how a lottery team bested the Bruins for 2nd in the East a year on.
These are two exciting young players. For the moment, Gallagher has the edge. He is used in better situations and has greater support. He had very little adjustment to the NHL and I can’t see any reason the playoffs would cause him to stumble.
Milan Michalek – Michael Ryder
The best pure goalscorers on either team are an interesting pair. Both can streak with the best of them and it will likely be timing that determines who comes out looking the hero.
My smart money is on Michael Ryder. Not only does he confound his biggest critics with regular occasion, he also has shown a bit of a flare for playoff hockey. When the Bruins crushed the Habs in 2009, Ryder was their best player, when they won the Cup, he struck me as a player who was always there when most required. The threat to Ryder is not being put into situations where the big shot becomes big important goal. If he gets the trust of his coach, he’ll be a menace to the Sens.
It didn’t seem to me there was much point going further and further down an Ottawa lineup to match with Canadiens coming off very strong seasons in the offensive zone. Ottawa does not have an Alex Galchenyuk or Lars Eller to boast of, they do not have the secondary scoring of Brian Gionta or Rene Bourque. While their discipline to a MacLean plan is a massive strength, I cannot see their depth against the Habs (I didn’t even mention David Desharnais yet).
What remains to break what seems to be a tie is coaching and team approach.
While this post seems to posit that Montreal should go with their strength and push against Ottawa’s strength, this decision is ultimately up to the coaches.
That said, I am wary of a team that does not play to its own strengths, as they allow another team to dictate the strategy and tempo.
It is pretty clear to me and any on-looker that Ottawa will stick to its approach here. Without Spezza, they don’t possess the arsenal to run and gun. With the track record they have over 48, they’d be foolish to stray.
Montreal is always difficult to call. The fish bowl that the coaches survive in makes for hasty decisions sometimes. The real strength that led the team to this point was built on solid defence but a fairly free and aggressive counter-attack. The combination of direct goals and indirect goals (from the PPs won) has made the team a top seed. I think they’ll stick with this to start. What the team will do in a tight spot is almost anyone’s guess.
Coaching and strategy: Draw
The series cannot end in a draw, so what then?
Despite all my comparisons above, I have a feeling that Montreal has the greater capacity here to win. I will not make an outright prediction, but to say that with the strengths they have at the moment, and the strengths in reserve with certain players finding their form again (ahem, Carey, Rene) that Ottawa would be in very tough.
The big threat to Montreal in my opinion is discipline. Discipline to system, discipline to avoid penalties and discipline to drive the agenda. Ottawa has proven what discipline can do as they vaulted Craig Anderson into record books and led the league in various categories, and they must know the advantages of disturbing discipline on the opposition team. Their forwards, while not ever going to the Hall of Fame, all relish stirring the pot. The outlets for this have to be controlled in the Habs camp. Prust can fight, so can others, but the results when Subban, Pacioretty and others get riled don’t flatter.
Anyway, whatever happens, tonight is the eve of a playoff series we in Montreal didn’t expect, and one that two cities have been waiting two decades to see. The two crucibles of professional hockey meet once again to determine superiority. Let’s hope that Montreal takes the mantle just as it did when it took the Governor General’s silver for its own.