If you just returned from a desert island and have been dying to see some incredibly exciting and competitive playoff hockey, the Original Six matchup between legendary franchises Boston and Montreal probably has you pretty juiced. Unfortunately, the likelihood of a classic Bruins-Canadiens series this postseason is about as likely as that desert island scenario.
The surprising Bruins (53-19-10, 116 Pts) have been one of the NHL’s best teams and best stories this season, while Montreal (41-30-11, 93 Pts) has limped into the playoffs. In fact, if it weren’t for Buffalo being hamstrung by a key Ryan Miller injury and an underwhelming stretch run for Florida, the Habs would be hitting the links already.
Boston Offense vs. Montreal Defense
Boston Offense GVT: +25.3 (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Montreal Defense GVT: -11.8 (Rank: 25th in NHL)
Montreal Goaltending GVT: +4.1 (Rank 12th in NHL)
The Bruins balanced attack of three solid lines features seven 20-plus goal scorers, including trade deadline acquisition Mark Recchi. Fast and big, they just keep coming at you in waves. Offensive GVT ranks Marc Savard (25 G, 63 A, 13.1 GVT), David Krejci (22 G, 51 A, 12.3 GVT), Phil Kessel (36 G, 24 A, 11.8 GVT) and Zdeno Chara (19 G, 31 A, 8.4 GVT) as the Boston’s top offensive contributors.
Montreal’s weak defense relies most on defensemen Josh Gorges (5.4 Defensive GVT), Andrei Markov (3.8 Defensive GVT) and Roman Hamrlik (3.7 Defensive GVT). Unfortunately, Markov may not play in this series.
While the tandem of Carey Price (2.0 Goaltending GVT) and Jaroslav Halak (8.9 Goaltending GVT) rank slightly above average in Goaltending GVT, Price (career playoff save percentage .901, current regular season save percentage .905) and Halak (career playoff save percentage .889, current regular season save percentage .915) do not profile as playoff difference makers, according to a recent study. In any case, the Canadiens have nothing to lose in giving both netminders a go, to try to find a hot hand.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Montreal Offense vs. Boston Defense
Montreal Offense GVT: +0.3 (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Boston Defense GVT: +1.9 (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Boston Goaltending GVT: +29.3 (Rank 2nd in NHL)
A middle of the pack offense meets a middle of the pack defense when Montreal has the puck, but Boston’s goaltending is the difference.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: The absence of Andrei Markov (12 G, 52 A, 11.6 Offensive GVT) may be a major problem, as he was Montreal’s best offensive player this year. If Markov cannot play, Alexei Kovalev (26 G, 39 A, 9.2 Offensive GVT) is the biggest remaining threat. With Robert Lang (18 G, 21 A, 5.6 Offensive GVT) out for the season with an Achilles injury, first liners Saku Koivu (16 G, 34 A, 5.5 GVT) and Alex Tanguay (16 G, 25 A, 5.8 GVT) are the only other offensive contributors of note.
The Bruins most valuable defenders are blueliners Dennis Wideman (6.7 Defensive GVT), Zdeno Chara (4.0 Defensive GVT) and Mark Stuart (3.8 Defensive GVT), and forwards David Krejci (6.0 Defensive GVT), Blake Wheeler (5.5 Defensive GVT) and former Canadien Michael Ryder (4.5 Defensive GVT).
Tim Thomas (36.3 Goaltending GVT) posted a dazzling .933 save percentage this season, tied for the second best regular season mark of all time, bowing only to Dominik Hasek’s heady .937 save percentage in 1998-1999. The sole negative for the 35 year old netminder is his relative lack of playoff experience. His 7 games all came in last year’s loss to Montreal, though he posted a commendable .914 save percentage in that series. Those save percentages, along with this season’s well managed workload of 54 games and 1,694 Shots On Goal Against, portend well for a good series and playoffs.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Boston Power Play vs. Montreal Penalty Kill
Boston Power Play Offense GVT: +14.7 (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Montreal Penalty Kill Defense GVT: -2.4 (Rank: 24th in NHL)
With Boston owning a decided advantage when on the man advantage (23.6% power play efficiency vs. 82.4% penalty kill), Montreal’s best defense will be to stay out of the penalty box. Unfortunately, while the Bruins are one of the league’s least penalized teams, the Canadiens are one of the league’s most penalized teams.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Montreal Power Play vs. Boston Penalty Kill
Montreal Power Play Offense GVT: +1.1 (Rank: 13th in NHL)
Boston Penalty Kill Defense GVT: +0.2 (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Montreal’s average power play (19.2%) meets Boston’s average penalty killing team (82.4%). Not exactly matter meeting anti-matter. Montreal was one of eight NHL teams to allow double digit Short Handed Goals Against (11) this season.
Season Series Results
Other than a mid-October shootout win for Montreal, the season series was all Boston, with five Bruin wins in the remaining five games. In playoff terms, that would translate to five outright wins for the Bruins and one game in overtime. The advantage in terms of goals was 23 Boston, 12 Montreal, scoring levels that would translate to Boston winning 4 out of 5 games.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Injuries and Intangibles
Bruins top scorer Phil Kessel (36 G 24 A) has returned from injury in fine form, including a hat trick to finish off the regular season. However, if P.J. Axelsson is not able to play, the top lines may need to be juggled. Zdeno Chara was essentially rested for the last two regular season games, but it’s unknown when Andrew Ference will return as his defensive partner. The Bruins have plenty of quality depth on defense after acquiring Steve Montador from the Ducks at the trade deadline, minimizing his potential absence.
In contrast, the Canadiens may have more key injuries than any other playoff team. Defenseman Andrei Markov was leading les Habitants in points when he went down with an undisclosed injury. Missing Markov significantly affects both the even strength and power play scoring abilities of the Canadiens, as well as their defense. Trade deadline addition Mathieu Schneider would help shore up the offensive contributions from the blueline, but he continues to play with an ailing shoulder.
The Bruins are the one remaining Boston team which has not tasted success recently, now that the Celtics have their championship. It is almost unfathomable to think that the Bruins have won only one playoff series since 1994-1995. If they fall behind in this series, the pressure may mount for an unproven young club in a town that can be notoriously hard on their teams. The young Bruins may not know it themselves, but the media will remind them that the 2001-2002 and 2003-2004 Boston teams that finished first in the Northeast Division lost their first round series to…you guessed it, the Canadiens. They remember last season’s loss themselves.
While intangibles may hurt the Bruins, they may help the Canadiens. Saku Koivu is a smart and gritty little player who finds ways to win, a worthy team captain. Alexei Kovalev, for his occasional lack of focus, finds his focus plenty when it’s playoff time. If the Canadiens keep the score close, Kovalev can have a decisive flash of brilliance at any time. Montreal needs intangibles in spades from players such as Koivu and Kovalev to help even the overall talent gap.
Much has been said of the Bruins’ intimidation of the Canadiens, particularly of Milan Lucic’s battles with Mike Komisarek. Enter Georges Laraque, an unlikely player in the drama of this first round series. It will be fascinating to see who intimidates whom and what the price of intimidation is – in power play opportunities.
If you’re looking for a scenario for Montreal to win, you pretty much need the stars to align. Montreal needs to take a lead in the series, making the young Bruins doubt themselves and not play their game. A patient defensive game plan needs to frustrate the Bruins’ offense and minimize the Canadiens defensive weaknesses. Andrei Markov needs to return from injury and be effective. The Canadiens top line needs to be dominant. Carey Price needs to regain the rookie form that has eluded him this year. Maybe four of those five scenarios need to happen.
What will happen? The Canadiens top line –Alexei Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay– will win one for Montreal on a night where Thomas and the Boston defense are not at their best. The rest of the series will be no contest.
Prediction: Boston Bruins in 5 games.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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