Few were expecting an all-Canadian first-round matchup, especially in the East, where the notion that any of Canadian teams were going to start the playoffs on home ice just seemed too far-fetched.
But it happened, thanks to the Montreal Canadiens, one of the 2013 season's biggest surprises. Only the homerest of homers were picking the Habs to win the Northeast division, but after a stunning and immediate resurgence under news head coach Michel Therrien and new general manager Marc Bergevin (and a little help from the Senators in the season's final game), here they are, all bannered and proud.
The Senators were a surprise this year as well, albeit for very different reasons. After misfortune ravaged the room, plucking all their most important pieces from the lineup, it would have been forgivable if they'd dropped out of contention. But instead, they battled all year long, weathered the storm, and now, as they begin to get their guys back at the most important times, they look like one a dangerous seventh seed.
Canadians (and canadiens) rejoice: there will be a team from our home and native land in the second round no matter what. But who will it be?
Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (7)
May 2: Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens, 7 p.m. ET.
May 3: Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens, 7 p.m. ET.
May 5: Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators, 7 p.m. ET.
May 7: Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators, 7 p.m. ET
May 9: Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens, * 7 p.m. ET
May 11: Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators * TBD
May 12: Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens, * TBD
The Senators goals per game was a terrible 2.33, good for 27th in the league, ahead of only New Jersey, Nashville and Florida. Despite some gaudy possession numbers, they struggled to score goals all season, which is the sort of thing that will happen when the league's best offensive defenceman as well as your most effective duo up front are injured for most of the year. Jason Spezza played just five games this season (and isn't expected to be around for Round 1). Milan Michalek played 23, and was, understandably, a little less offensively punchy without Spezza setting him up.
Michalek will open this series on a line with Cory Conacher, another rookie standout, and Kyle Turris in the middle. The second line consists of Colin Greening, Zack Smith, and the ageless Daniel Alfredsson. More incredible rookies on line 3 as Erik Condra lines up with Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg.
And, of course, Chris Neil is on line 4. We'll probably notice him from time to time.
The Canadiens posted a goals per game average of 3.04 in 2012, good for 4th in the entire league. They were just one of seven teams to average over three goals a game. In other words: they're good at this whole scoring thing.
The goals come from all over, too. The Canadiens had 10 players with 20 or more points, but no one with over 40. The goals are spread out as well. Rene Bourque's seven goals placed him eleventh in team scoring. It's an incredibly balanced group.
Bourque, who might have scored more had he not missed 21 games with a concussion, plays on the first line, if you can call it that, with Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec. The second line consists of rookie standout Brendan Gallagher, David Desharnais, and Max Pacioretty for some much-needed size.
Meanwhile, Michael Ryder, whose 16 goals this year between Dallas and Montreal made him the highest-scoring player, is on the third line with Lars Eller and another great rookie, Alex Galchenyuk.
The Canadiens come at you in unending waves. It's why they control possession better than almost any other NHL team. They'll be a handful.
Montreal will miss Alexei Emelin, who was lost for the year to a torn knee ligament, but they've still got a strong top-four. The prize piece: potential Norris trophy winner P.K. Subban, one of hockey's most dynamic young blueliners. He is, in a word, excellent. He finished second in team scoring to Max Pacioretty by one point, and he played six fewer games.
Subban plays on a pairing with Josh Gorges that can shut you down and light you up.
Behind him, Raphael Diaz and Andrei Markov make up pairing number two. Markov had 10 goals this season and is a always a threat to blast one home. Diaz is coming off a concussion, and still re-finding his game. His ability to get up to game speed is crucial.
The Senators are led, as you can probably guess, by Erik Karlsson, the Norris trophy-winning defenceman who changes their attack completely when he's in the lineup. Karlsson's shots per game of 4.6 was tied with Alex Ovechkin for tops in the league, and among defencemen, it wasn't even close. Dustin Byfuglien was second in shots per game by a defenceman with 3.3, and the only other defenceman in the playoffs that averaged 3 shots per game is Montreal's P.K. Subban.
In other words, Karlsson is the key to the Senators attack. His ability to get shots through traffic and give his club rebound opportunities is where this series can be won.
Behind Karlsson is one of the NHL's largest defence corps. No one else on the backend is under six foot. Jared Cowen, Marc Methot, Chris Phillips and Eric Gryba are all 6'3" or larger, and Sergei Gonchar, Ottawa's other offensive engine, is 6'2". It's a massive, mobile group, and if they can keep up with Montreal, the size mismatch could be, well, big.
Craig Anderson's numbers this season were incredible: a GAA of 1.69, a SV% of .941 and 3 shutouts. It might have been a Vezina season for the Senators' backstop if he didn't miss so much of it due to injury. But he's back now, and he certainly showed signs of rounding into form in his final 3 starts, allowing just 2 goals and posting his third shutout of the season.
Carey Price is pretty decent at this whole "getting hit by pucks" thing as well, with a 2.59 save percentage and a goals against average of .905. Those numbers pale in comparison to Anderson, no doubt, but the Canadiens play a much more open style of hockey. I don't think there's any doubting what he can do. Still, Price will be in tough to stop this from being Anderson's year.
Does Their Season Deserve an Asterisk?
Both these teams have a lot of rookies that might have faded down the stretch, if this season had a stretch. But speaking of stretches, that line of reasoning is one. Some of this year's other surprises have had the look of a paper tiger -- not the Canadiens. And as for the Senators, a longer season would have given them a chance to get healthy.
In short, the shortened season has nothing to do with either team being where they are.
Paul Maclean and Michel Therrien are both Jack Adams contenders, in my opinion. They've done incredible work to get the most out of their teams.
If this were a moustache competition, I think we know who would get the edge. Sadly, it is not, so I'm calling it a draw.
Montreal's powerplay was 5th in the NHL at 20.7%. Ottawa's was 20th, at a mediocre 15.9%. Granted, it didn't have Erik Karlsson on it for much of the year, and that matters. Having him firing away changes the dynamic quite a bit. Meanwhile, Ottawa's penalty-kill had a league-best 88% kill rate, which is approaching golden gun territory, and Montreal's was a weak point at 79.8%, good for 23rd.
EPIC RAP BATTLE!!!!!
Senators in 7.
This is going to be a tight series and I've gone back and forth on this prediction, but I think it's really going to come down to the Canadiens' forwards versus the Senators' defence, and I think Karlsson will be the difference here. With him in the lineup, the Senators are a completely different team, and by "completely different", I mean "slightly better than Montreal".