State of the Habs, Part 11 – Games 46-48: Division Champions + Playoff Preview

0
55
The emergence of Lars Eller gives the Canadiens great center depth (PHOTO: GRAHAM HUGHES / CP)

State of the Habs is an 11-part feature series where I’ll break down the Habs’ season into 4- to 6-game chunks and look at players who are under- or over-performing during that time, while commenting on issues surrounding the team.

See Previous Segments:
Part 1 (Games 1-4: 3-1-0, “The Boys are Back in Town”)
Part 2 (Games 5-8: 3-1-0, “Rinse and Repeat”)
Part 3 (Games 9-12: 1-2-1, “The Plot Thickens”)
Part 4 (Games 13-16: 4-0-0, “Perfection”)
Part 5 (Games 17-20: 2-0-2, “And the Streak Goes On”)
Part 6 (Games 21-24: 2-1-1, “No Defense, No Problem”)
Part 7 (Games 25-28: 4-0-0, “The Kids are Alright”)
Part 8 (Games 29-34: 2-2-1, “Regression to a Mean”)
Part 9 (Games 35-39: 4-2-0, “Emergence of the Core”)
Part 10 (Games 40-45: 2-4-0, “We All Fall Down”)

Overview – Game Segment 11/11 (Games 46-48)

Season Last 3 Games
Record 29-14-5 2-1-0
Goal Differential +23 +4
Leading Scorer Pacioretty (15-24-39) Eller (2-4-6)
Hot (L3 GP) Gallagher (2-1-3)
Cold (L3 GP) Ryder (0-0-0)

 

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON – The Canadiens entered the final three games of their 2013 regular season in a terrible funk. While their playoff spot was already secured, it was important for the team to get back to some of the good habits that had made them so successful for much of the year in order to hit the post-season on a high note.

There were some positives in a 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils, with the team showing spurts of emotion and intensity after they had once again fallen far behind. These built to a strong third period against the Winnipeg Jets, where the offense showed renewed determination in topping a Jets squad that had just been eliminated from post-season contention by a 4-2 score. Perhaps most importantly in that game was a strong showing from netminder Carey Price who – while certainly not solely to blame – played a large part in the team’s prior struggles.

Price turned in a strong performance in Winnipeg, but will become very familiar with Chris Neil this week (PHOTO; File/Canadian Press)
Price turned in a strong performance in Winnipeg, but will get very familiar with Chris Neil this week (PHOTO: File/Canadian Press)

So good did Price look against Winnipeg that coach Michel Therrien deemed him playoff-ready, resting him for the final tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a potential first round foe. With the Northeast Division title still up for grabs, the Canadiens turned in their best showing in weeks, outplaying and outbattling their Toronto rivals from start to finish and earning a 4-1 result. When the Ottawa Senators lent a helping hand by defeating the Boston Bruins the follow night, it was official: your Montreal Canadiens were crowned 2013 regular season Northeast Division Champions.

However, Montreal is a special place. We don’t hang division championship banners from the Bell Centre rafters. Nothing less than the ultimate conquest – the Stanley Cup – is considered a true success in this city, and so while we can look back and see it was a good season – unexpected results and strong development for some of the system’s top prospects – there is still much work to be done.

And that work gets underway tonight, as the Habs host the Ottawa Senators in game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarter-finals. Everything starts fresh. A clean slate. The points accumulated over the course of the shortened 48-game season have all been erased. Thus, we’ll take things a little differently than previous installments of State of the Habs in – after some house-cleaning on stats we’ve tracked all year long – we’ll look ahead to preview this first round matchup rather than looking back at performances of the past three games.

Three Stars – Segment Eleven

1. Lars Eller

2. Brendan Gallagher

3. Alex Galchenyuk

 

Three Stars – Final Standings
(three points for being named first star, two for second, one for third)

1. P.K. Subban – 12
2. Tomas Plekanec – 8
2. Alex Galchenyuk – 8
4. Lars Eller – 7

5. Michael Ryder – 5
5. Max Pacioretty – 5
5. Brendan Gallagher – 5

8. Brian Gionta – 4
9. Andrei Markov – 3
9. Carey Price – 3
9. Peter Budaj – 3
12. Rene Bourque – 2
12. David Desharnais – 2
14. Raphael Diaz – 1
14. Brandon Prust – 1

Congratulations to P.K. Subban, winner of the inaugural Dan Kramer Appreciation Award.

 

MONTREAL CANADIENS VS. OTTAWA SENATORS – SERIES PREVIEW

FORWARDS

To digest this series, we can breakdown how the clubs match up by position.

Offensively, the Ottawa Senators’ 116 goals are fewer than any other team that qualified for the post-season, whereas Montreal’s 149 tallies are less than only the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks.

The Canadiens scored by committee, with an impressive eight players (including all top six forwards) hitting the 10-goal mark. It was an incredible turnaround as Montreal boasted six players with 30 or more points; ironically the same number of players on the team to reach that mark over 2011-12’s 82-game calendar. Therrien has settled into established lines that have shown chemistry at various points over the course of the season, employing a veteran-ladden top six in Michael RyderTomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta along with Max PaciorettyDavid Desharnais, and Rene Bourque.

But it is the youthful third line which has risen to the occasion over the season’s final stretch. Lars Eller has worked his way from being a healthy scratch in the second game of the short season to being likely one of the team’s most important players, often looking dominant at even strength while putting in important work on the penalty kill. He enters the playoffs with six points over a three-game scoring streak, and 13 points in his last 12 contests. His right winger is the diminutive Brendan Gallagher who has deservingly been getting a lot of press recently as one of the team’s tougher forwards to play against. As P.K. Subban pointed out, the team will be successful in the playoffs if everyone competes as hard as the pesky rookie has on a nightly basis. The third member of the unit, 2012 third overall selection Alex Galchenyuk, has gone through hot and cold patches this season, but is currently playing his best hockey to date, adding 12 points to his stat line over the season’s 13 final games. Therrien has gone to great lengths to manage his ice time and protect him from unfavourable matchups, which is likely to continue into the playoffs. But if this line remains the team’s most productive in the early going against the Sens, they should be rewarded with a larger role.

The emergence of Lars Eller gives the Canadiens great center depth (PHOTO: GRAHAM HUGHES / CP)
The emergence of Lars Eller gives the Canadiens great center depth (PHOTO: GRAHAM HUGHES / CP)

The Senators are not ones to marvel at the contributions of opposing rookies to a line-up, with an astounding league-high fourteen players having participated in their first NHL season this year due to the club’s injury woes. As a result, in stark contrast to Montreal’s six 30+ point scorers, Kyle Turris and Cory Conacher co-led the Sens with just 29 points each.

But the club is mostly healthy now, with the notable exception of Jason Spezza who was limited to just five games this season, and as such present perhaps an even more balanced attack than Montreal’s with four lines who can produce. Daniel Alfredsson has historically enjoyed playing against the Canadiens, and his line with Turris and Milan Michalek (who is ready to play despite missing a practice earlier this week) will be the primary focus for the Habs’ top shutdown players, going head-to-head against the Plekanec line.

The young Swedish pair of Mika Zibanejad and Jakub Silfverberg are joined by ex-Hab Guillaume Latendresse on another scoring line, which logic dictates should line-up against the Eller unit whenever possible. Silfverberg participated in two playoff games last year and Latendresse twelve during his time with the Canadiens, which barely outdoes the seven games of experience Eller racked up in 2011. Certainly when the two lines are on-ice together, the skill level will be high, and given the greenness of all players involved, the outcome is hard to predict.

A line which might be trouble for Montreal is that of Zack Smith – often a thorn in the Canadiens’ side – centering Chris Neil and Colin Greening. The size and toughness of the unit is hard for the Habs to match, with Therrien likely to send out his fourth line to combat it, even though they’ll be significantly out-skilled. The likes of Brandon PrustTravis Moen, and Ryan White will need to engage the Ottawa trio physically to not get hemmed in their own end.

Where the Canadiens can draw an advantage is among the remaining forwards, able to ice a proven duo – struggle as they may – in Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais against rookies Corey Conacher and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. It’s also a matchup where Desharnais shouldn’t find himself outmatched physically given the stature of the two named Sens, while even with his inconsistencies, Michael Ryder as the third player on Montreal’s side compares quite favourably to Erik Condra for Ottawa.

There is some risk to the balanced approach as – while it is a strength to have offense sprinkled throughout the line-up – the Canadiens don’t necessarily have a set line to turn to when they desperately need a tying goal. In this matchup, though, while they have a more distinct “first line,” Ottawa’s line-up is similarly spread out, and thus it shouldn’t be a factor that favours either side.

Of course these matchups are likely what Therrien is planning, and the coach won’t have the luxury of last change for the entire seven game series. Given how they seem to show a clear edge in the Canadiens’ favour, home ice may play a big part in deciding the series’s winner, particularly when one notes Ottawa’s 10-11-3 road record this season.

Edge: Montreal.

DEFENSE

While the Senators are still without a key cog up front, their defense has been bolstered by the returns of Erik Karlsson and Jarred CowenChris Phillips went down in the season finale against the Bruins, but has resumed practicing with the team and will play tonight.

Andrei Markov has been noticeably slower of late; will a few days off change that? (PHOTO: André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Image)
Andrei Markov has been noticeably slower of late; will a few days off change that? (PHOTO: André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Image)

The Habs and Sens are actually quite similar on D. For Karlsson, Montreal has P.K. Subban. For Sergei Gonchar, there’s Andrei Markov (who hopefully benefited from the many days between games to re-energize himself from the worn down player we saw in the last few contests). For Marc Methot, there’s Josh Gorges. The loss of Alexei Emelin has hindered the team’s defensive systems to greater extent than anyone had imagined, but rookie Jarred Tinordi has provided quality minutes since being brought back up from Hamilton once the AHL calendar concluded and brings the size and toughness that a Cowen does for Ottawa.

The addition of Tinordi may be an important factor in stopping the Greening-Smith-Neil line from running amok, as the Canadiens’ blueline remains relatively small. It is in that department that Ottawa has an edge on D, as long-time veteran Chris Phillips anchors the other pairing, playing with a fellow jumbo-sized rearguard in either Erik Gryba or Patrick Wiercioch. In their stead, the Canadiens hope extra offense from the back end courtesy of Raphael Diaz, along with a veteran of their own in Francis Bouillon, will overcome the lack of more true shutdown-types.

Edge: Slight advantage Ottawa.

GOALTENDING

While injuries limited him to 24 appearances this season, Craig Anderson‘s 1.69 GAA and .941 save percentage are sparkling figures that leap off the page. The netminder has only been a part of 13 playoff games, but his numbers are equally as impressive there, with a career 2.29 goals against and .933 save percentage. Should he falter for whatever unforeseen reason, Robin Lehner is no slouch despite a lack of experience.

There is at least as much potential in the Montreal crease with Carey Price despite his late-season slump. The goalie has now been a part of four separate playoff drives, totaling 26 appearances, with his best being his most recent in 2011. He concluded the seven-game series against the Boston Bruins with a sensational 2.11 GAA and .934 save percentage. While not the blossoming rookie Lehner is, veteran Peter Budaj has also shown to be a highly capable No. 2 if needed to be called on in a pinch.

One could argue there is greater risk on the Montreal side in this match-up due to Price’s inconsistencies, but Anderson didn’t necessarily have the easiest month of April himself, with a 4-5-0 record since returning from injury, including four sub-.900 save percentage nights. Not struggles to the level of Price’s during the team’s funk, of course, but signs that he is beatable.

Edge: Wash.

PREDICTION: It isn’t going to be a cakewalk, but Montreal is the better team five-on-five and has greater scoring ability to break through in the clutch. Montreal in six.