The Montreal Canadiens are not the strongest team in the Eastern Conference. That title has to be given to their bitter rivals, the Boston Bruins. But Montreal has put together a strong season that has gotten them into the playoffs as a high seed. A Canadian team has not won the Cup since 1993. Could this year be the season that all changes?
(3rd/4th in the Eastern Conference, 2nd/3rd in the Atlantic)
Preseason Expectations: Preseason expectations for every Canadian team, regardless of the previous year’s success, are high. It is a byproduct of the culture. The Montreal Canadiens are no different. They finished the lockout-shortened season last year with the second best record in the Eastern Conference, but they were embarrassed in the first round of last season’s playoffs. Despite entering the series as the heavy favorite, the Canadiens fell to the Ottawa Senators in five games. The team hoped to build on the 48 games that started that season and not the five games that ended it.
How they got here: Montreal made the playoffs by winning games at the right time. If one looks at their schedule, it would be difficult to see how they finished so highly in the standings. But a closer examination reveals a consistency that separates playoff teams from non-playoff ones. The Canadiens rarely went three games without at least one point in that span, and long winning streaks in late November and mid-March pushed Montreal from a bubble team to a serious contender.
Key Players: G Carey Price, D P.K. Subban, LW Max Pacioretty
Major Moves: Getting healthy has been the Canadiens’ biggest move. Veteran defenseman Andrei Markov has struggled with health issues in the past, but this season, he has remained healthy. That spelled good news for Montreal, as Markov plays big minutes in every key role for the team. At the trade deadline, Montreal took advantage of a bad situation in New York and nabbed sniper Tomas Vanek for next to nothing. Vanek has put up 15 points in 16 games since joining the team.
Who they will face in the first round: Montreal will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. It is a good matchup for the Canadiens, who might have struggled with a bigger, more physical team, but the season series between the two teams has gone heavily in Tampa Bay’s favor. The only win Montreal had against the Lightning this year was a 2-1 shootout win in late December.
How they will fare: The first round series will depend almost entirely on goaltending. Both Price and Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop are near the top of the league in every goaltending stat, so the series will come down to whichever netminder falters first. Bishop suffered an injury late in the regular season that has kept him out until this series, so he may be rusty upon his return. Special teams could also make a big difference. Both Montreal and Tampa Bay have similar numbers in powerplay percentage, but the Canadiens hold a decisive advantage on the penalty kill.
Prediction: Montreal in 6.
Conn Smythe Winner: The last time Montreal won the Cup, it was almost entirely because of their goaltender. If they should accomplish that goal this year, the same reason should apply. Carey Price has developed into a top-tier netminder, but without any hardware to show for it. If the Canadiens win the Cup, he should have a Conn Smythe to his name.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner