With a potent offense and a 20-year-old rookie goaltender playing like a seasoned veteran, the Montreal Canadiens seem to have the ingredients for their first Stanley Cup championship in 15 years.
Before they can consider hanging a record 24th banner from the rafters, they must start by beating a team they’ve toyed with.
The Eastern Conference champion Canadiens go for their 12th straight win over the eighth-seeded Boston Bruins when they meet on Thursday night at the Bell Centre in Game 1 of their quarterfinal series.
“We want to win the Cup, but we have to beat Boston, so let’s start there,” general manager Bob Gainey said.
That’s been easy for the Canadiens. After winning the final three meetings last season, Montreal (47-25-10) took all eight matchups from the Bruins by a 39-16 margin in 2007-08. The Canadiens’ success hasn’t been limited to the regular season - they’ve won 23 of 30 all-time playoff series from the Bruins and their 95 postseason victories are the most against any team.
But since 1994, the top-seeded team has lost to a No. 8 club seven times, most recently in 2006 when Edmonton upset Detroit. Montreal was the eighth seed when it defeated Boston in 2002.
“Once the postseason starts there are no favorites,” Montreal’s Mike Komisarek said. “Our record against Boston or our record in the regular season is not going to help us win in the postseason. Montreal Canadiens teams aren’t defined on what they do in the regular season, they’re defined on the success they have in the postseason.
“All we’ve done in the regular season, throw (it) out the window. We start from square one.”
That begins with a balanced offense that scored a league-leading 262 goals, and had seven players finish with at least 50 points.
Alex Kovalev was tied for fourth in the NHL with 17 power-play goals and was the first Canadiens player in a dozen years to finish with 35. Tomas Plekanec (29 goals), Christopher Higgins (27) and Andrei Kostitsyn (26) fueled Montreal to its first conference crown since 1992.
“That’s all through the regular season and that’s all good, fine and dandy, but come playoff time, it’s a whole new ballgame out there,” the Habs’ Josh Gorges said.
The Canadiens, though, likely will be without center and captain Saku Koivu for Game 1. Koivu, who broke a small bone in his left foot while blocking a shot on March 28, has not practiced with the team this week.
“One reason we were successful this year is that we avoided injuries,” said Kovalev. “It definitely hurts not to have Saku in the lineup, but a lot of guys are hungry and want to take his place and hopefully they’ll be as successful as he is. We’ll see.”
While it’s all new for goaltender Carey Price, he’s enjoyed success elsewhere. Last year, he helped Canada win gold at the World Junior Championship then was named playoff MVP in leading the Canadiens’ AHL team to a Calder Cup championship.
Price had just 26 NHL games under his belt on Feb. 26 when he was given the starting job after veteran Cristobal Huet was traded to Washington. The fifth overall pick in 2005 has since posted a 12-3-0 record with a 2.12 goals-against average and two shutouts.
“Coach (Guy) Carbonneau came up and told me that the Montreal coaching staff and management would never put me in a position that they thought I couldn’t handle,” Price told NHL.com. “That’s all I needed to hear, and it gave me a lot of confidence moving forward.”
Price enters the playoffs having won his last seven starts, a run that began on March 20 by beating Boston in the start of a home-and-home series.
The Bruins’ 11-game skid is the longest in their 84-year history against Montreal, but they also will be trying to stop another losing streak. Boston (41-29-12) is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, when it dropped the final three games of its opening-round series against Montreal - then led by current coach Claude Julien - including a 2-0 loss in Game 7.
Goaltender Tim Thomas was solid over the final three weeks of the regular season, going 5-2-2 with a 1.85 GAA. The 33-year-old gave up two goals or less in eight of those contests and believes that has prepared the Bruins.
“Every game has been so important,” he said. “It’s almost like every game has been a must-win. It’s been playoff hockey for a while now. I think that will help us hopefully to be battle tested. We’ve passed every test so far.”
But he failed to beat Montreal in six games and allowed at least four goals in four of them en route to an 0-4-1 record with a 4.21 GAA. Alex Auld, who dropped his last four regular-season starts despite surrendering just six goals, lost in his only start against Montreal after stopping just three of seven first-period shots in an 8-2 defeat on Jan. 22.
If there is good news for the Bruins, it will be the return of leading scorer Marc Savard to make his playoff debut. Savard, who had team highs with 63 assists and 78 points, hasn’t played since March 22 after breaking a bone in his lower back when he was cross-checked by Steve Begin during a 3-2 shootout loss to the Canadiens.
Still, the Bruins’ biggest lift could come from a player that won’t suit up for Game 1 and may not take the ice at all in the series.
Patrice Bergeron was cleared for contact in practice on Monday for the first time since suffering a concussion on Oct. 27. Bergeron had averaged more than 60 points over his first three seasons, but appeared in only 10 games in 2007-08 after a face-first check into the boards by Philadelphia’s Randy Jones.
Bergeron doesn’t know when he’ll return to action.
“I have no idea,” he said. “There’s a not a game that I pinpointed that I want to choose. I’m not going to play on Thursday, that’s for sure. After that, it’s up in the air and see how I feel in practice.”
Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday night in Montreal.