As the 2013 regular season began to draw to a close, and Montreal and Boston continued to jostle for the Eastern Conference's number two seed, Montreal's pool of potential playoff opponents began to shrink. The most probably Canadiens opponent, for a period of weeks, appeared to be the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs held up their end of the bargain, holding steady in the five seed and setting up a 4-5 Leafs-Canadiens matchup that had Leafs and Canadiens fans salivating. The Canadiens stepped past the Bruins at the last minute, however, pushing the Bruins into a date with Toronto and earning a series with the Ottawa Senators instead. By earning the number two seed and the Northeast division title, the Canadiens guarantee themselves home-ice advantage in the playoffs for at least two rounds, should they advance that far. Home-ice advantage has come at a steep cost, however. In passing the Bruins, the Canadiens have also earned themselves a much tougher first-round opponent.
The Canadiens and Senators are somewhat similar teams, and seem exceptionally well-matched for each other. Each demonstrated excellence in puck-possession, hovering around 53% Fenwick close. While the Canadiens can ice one of the league's most lethal powerplays, the Senators have the NHL's most successful penalty kill. In addition to their special teams success, the Canadiens are also offensively dangerous at even-strength, and managed to leverage their skill in each area into one of the league's potent offenses. The Senators, conversely, translated some excellent goaltending and a strong system implemented by coach Paul MacLean into a team defence that allowed more goals than only the league-leading Chicago Blackhawks.
The narratives continue into the more superficial - each team can offer a Norris-calibre defenceman, and an aging, Russian, powerplay specialist on the point. While Craig Anderson's record-setting campaign will likely be denied the Vezina due to a significant injury, Carey Price was at least in the conversation until luck, Alexei Emelin, and any semblance of organized team defence went out the window for a stretch of five games in the middle of April. The Canadiens and the Senators are well-matched, and both have the ability to emerge from not only this series, but the Eastern Conference. We should have a lengthy, punch and counter-punch series on our hands.
While the Senators have suffered the kind of terrible injury luck that was characteristic of last year's horrific iteration of the Canadiens, the Senators have managed to stay afloat and make the playoffs despite it. Only one significant injury remains at this time, as the Senators will miss the playmaking acumen, powerplay presence, and faceoff abilities of Jason Spezza. The Canadiens have an impactful injury as well, as Alexei Emelin missed the final ten games of the regular season. The Canadiens appear set to replace Emelin's size and toughness with Jarred Tinordi, as was the case at the end of the regular season.
The Canadiens will pair Emelin's old running mate, Markov, with P.K. Subban. This Canadiens will fill out their other two pairings with Gorges-Diaz, and Bouillon-Tinordi.
On offense, the Canadiens will keep their kid line of Eller-Gallagher-Galchenyuk together, as the trio was dynamite against the Leafs in the season finale. Michael Ryder will line up with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, while Rene Bourque will skate with MaxPac and David Desharnais. The unexpected move comes on the fourth line, where Ryan White will centre Brandon Prust and Travis Moen. While the reliable Jeff Halpern may have been the easiest choice as the fourth line centre, Michel Therrien praised White's faceoff abilities, emotion, and discipline after White was reinserted into the line-up at the conclusion of a five-game suspension. Travis Moen will draw in over Colby Armstrong, and while Armstrong's penalty-killing prowess and efficiency in the offensive zone have been well-documented, Moen's reputation as a playoff-hardened warrior and his ability to totally discombobulate the Senators in critical situations should serve him well.
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Erik Karlsson the Senators in advance of tomorrow's series-opener, head to Silver Seven.