Ah, it’s great to be back in the playoffs again – and what better than to kick it off with a Montreal-Boston first round series? It’s a tradition.
Both the Habs and Bruins were picked to finish out of the playoffs prior to the start of the 2007-2008 season, so it seems fitting that the two would prove their nay-sayers wrong by making it to first and eighth in the league respectively.
As much as the Canadiens 8-0 record against Boston this season is overwhelmingly one-sided, the playoffs are a chance for everyone to start things over with hockey past wiped clean off the slate. For most, the playoffs represent and bring about an “anything can happen” mentality. It would be Montreal’s first mistake if they take their first round opponent lightly.
So without further adieu, here’s how these two original six clubs match up in round one of the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While picking the Carey Price fifth overall in the 2005 NHL entry draft caught just about everyone off guard thanks to an already solid, young goaltender in Jose Theodore playing for les bleu-blanc-rouge, there aren’t many now who could come up with a better choice.
Since he steamrolled through the WHL, World Juniors, and AHL, Price has come off as “the chosen one” to lead the Canadiens to their 25th Stanley Cup. With Carey, the sky is the limit – and I’m sure he will take us all to cloud nine if he can capture a Cup in this, his rookie season at the tender age of 20-years-old.
If the Habs are ahead of the curve in terms of peaking and development, then Price is right there leading the way. The wise Bob Gainey believes so much in his premiere asset and goaltender that he named him to the starting roster coming out of training camp.
So much so does Gainey believe that even after some growing pains that saw Carey sent to the minors midway through the season, he traded away the somewhat obvious number one goaltender and fan favorite Cristobal Huet to the Washington Capitals for a second round pick in a draft two years away!
There’s a lot riding on this kid, including Gainey’s reputation as an all-knowing being. While Kovalev was the Habs’ most important player in terms of making the post season and finishing first in the East, the team will go only as deep as Carey can carry them in the playoffs. Carey Price has the Canadiens’ hockey world on his shoulders and you can bet that the 6’3, 226lbs goaltender will stand tall.
At the other end of the rink, another playoff rookie awaits his chance to prove he can win the big games. Tim Thomas has yet to play an NHL playoff game at the not-so-young age of 33.
However, Thomas is a veteran goaltender of his own right, even with only three NHL seasons under his belt to date. He has had success overseas in Finland with a 25-10 record during various playoff series over the last decade. The question is can he translate that success in the NHL?
Thomas is a hard working goalie who fought his way to the NHL and established himself as one of the better goalies in the league. If the Flint, MI, USA native has any weakness this season – it was his play against the Montreal Canadiens. Thomas went 0-5 against the Habs this season and has only four wins in the 18 games he’s played against Montreal over his short NHL career. Meanwhile, over the five loses this season, Thomas unorthodox style was solved by Montreal quite often as he posted a poor 4.20GAA and .877 save percentage.
A cool, calm, and collective Carey Price gets the edge here if for nothing more than being a man of destiny.
Zdeno Chara leads the big, mean, and hard-hitting Boston defense corps. However, apart from Chara and Dennis Wideman, the Bruins defense doesn’t offer much in terms off offensive production.
Chara’s booming shot from the blue line will certainly be one of Boston’s weapons, especially on the power play. The Habs will have to concentrate on pressuring the 6’9, 250lbs often and courageously. I can think of no one better to do so than Steve Begin – but success will certainly come at a black and blue price.
Mark Stuart, 23, could potentially break out this post-season. The Rochester, MN native hasn’t shown a ton off offensive flare since breaking into the NHL, but he’s progressed steadily resulting in more trust from his Coach, Claude Julien.
Montreal looks forward to the return of both Michael Komisarek and Francis Bouillon to the back end for the start of the playoffs. There has, though, been some uncertainty as of late regarding their status for Game 1. It was assumed that both would be ready in time, but Komisarek has yet to receive medical clearance while Bouillon has had trouble skating in practice.
It was a breakout season for the 26-year-old Komisarek. Mike is a shot blocking machine who’s first thought is always about exploding into any opponent coming his way. While Komisarek loves to flatten the opposition, he has learned to control his instincts and use his head to dissect the play instead while going for the hit when it’s his best option.
Andrei Markov will surely enjoy Komisarek’s return to the line up. The two were a perfect pair to face off against team’s top forwards night in and night out. Markov’s skill compares to few others, and while he might not throw the biggest hits, there are few battles the highest paid Hab loses.
Should Komisarek and Bouillon return to the line up, the versatile Mark Streit will likely find himself playing forward. The Swiss native finished the season as the Canadiens’ third highest point getter with 62 points. He’ll surely find himself manning the point on the first wave of the league’s top power play.
Roman Hamrlik proved to be a much better blue liner than Sheldon Souray in terms of steady defensive play. Hamrlik will be a key player in terms of leading the team on the ice with his quiet, but consistent play.
Josh Gorges was a pleasant surprise this season and it will be very difficult to take him out of the line up. When Komisarek dropped out with a hip injury, Gorges stepped up and stepped up big. If Streit finds himself playing forward during 5-on-5 situations, it’s because Gorges has earned his spot in the lineup.
Patrice Brisebois offers leadership, but he’ll likely have to provide it off the ice as he’s likely to lose his spot to start the series. Ryan O’Byrne could find himself playing more than expected if the Habs’ feel they need his big body to counter the potential crease crashing and Chara’s presence.
Again, Montreal gets the edge on defense thanks in part to the number of useful bodies they have moving forward. However, if Komisarek and Bouillon aren’t close enough to 100%, the tables could easily turn in Boston’s favor.
You don’t finish as the league’s highest scoring team by accident. The Habs have a potent attack and they’re not afraid to use it. Five-on-five play was a concern for Montreal coming into this season. They successfully managed that aspect of their game while remaining dominant on the power play.
The Canadiens finished the season with four players who had 25 or more goals, and nine with goal totals in the double digits. Scoring by committee has been a key to the Habs’ success – of the players to play more than a single game, only Gorges finished the season without a goal.
By now, everyone knows about the season Alex Kovalev had. The 34-year-old posted 35 goals and 84 points for the second best season in terms of offensive production since 2001 when he had 96 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins playing with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
Kovalev is by far the top forward in this series – and plays on the best line of both teams along with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn. If the Bruins fail to contain this trio, the serious will not last very long.
In terms of secondary scoring, Montreal has Christopher Higgins, Michael Ryder, Sergei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse, Mikhail Grabovski, and Saku Koivu should he be healthy enough to return. Koivu is a proven playoff performer who could give the Habs’ a serious boost if he can get back in uniform for this series.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens’ forward group is rounded out by a mix of two-way and defensive players in Steve Begin, Maxime Lapierre, Tom Kostopoulos, Bryan Smolinski, and Mathieu Dandenault. Gregory Stewart might find himself in uniform after putting on an impressive display against the Toronto Maple Leafs in his first NHL game and the Habs’ final game of the season.
The Boston Bruins had some good news when Patrice Bergeron was given the green light to commence full contact practice. There’s a good chance we’ll see the talented center and offensive catalyst sometime in the early going of this series.
Bergeron joins Marc Savard as the question marks heading into Game 1 of the first round. Savard, the Bruins’ leading scorer with 78 points in 74 games, is still suffering from the broken bone in his back thanks to a cross checked by none other than the Habs’ Steve Begin. The playoffs are no place for revenge, but you can be sure that Savard and his teammates have not forgotten the incident.
Boston will look to Glen Murray, Marco Sturm, and Glen Metropolit to lead the way both on and off the ice. Murray has had a sub-par season thanks in part to injury trouble. Don’t be surprised, though, if he starts finding the back of the net a little more often in the post-season.
Phil Kessel and Chuck Kobasew will need to offer above average secondary scoring if the Bruins are going to challenge the Habs’ ability to score, and score big.
The Bruins have a number of third and forth line grinders who will lean in heavily on Kovalev and company every chance they get. Peter Schaefer, P.J. Axelsson, Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton, and Jeremy Reich will look to neutralize Montreal’s offense whenever possible. The later will also likely be crease crashers as early as the first few minutes of the series.
Even with Savard and potentially Bergeron returning to the line up for the Bruins early in this series, the Habs look to have the edge up front as well with the Kovalev line leading the way. Adding Koivu to the equation would only extend the dominance.
Keys to Success
The Boston Bruins made it clear that they were going to try and get into Price’s head. To do this, you can imagine, they’ll make it their mission to get up close and personal every chance they can.
Don’t be surprised to see Chara standing above the crease every so often on power play situations. Price is a big goaltender who uses his height to his advantage to navigate through traffic – so using Chara as a screen with the man advantage could prove to be a useful tactic.
The Habs can counter the crash creasing strategy expected from the Bruins should Mike Komisarek return to the line up. If Komisarek’s hip isn’t close to or at 100%, Montreal could be in a little trouble. They’re not down and out without Komisarek, though, as Roman Hamrlik, Ryan O’Byrne, and Francis Bouillon are all candidates to lead the way in protecting their prize net minder.
The key to Montreal’s success is to continue what they’ve done all season long against the Bruins and other opponents. They’ll need to remain creative and adaptive on the power play. They’ll also look to move the puck around often and accurately to ensure a dizzying effect on Tim Thomas opening him up for easy goals.
Another key to the Habs’ beating the Bruins is to wear down Zdeno Chara. The big man plays more than 30 minutes a game, so if the Habs can make sure to get the puck in deep shift after shift and make him work for it, the payoff will be quite good as the series goes on.
It is often said that goaltending decides playoffs, and that’s certainly true. However, injuries can go a long way to changing the course of a team’s run for the Cup.
The Habs currently have a number of key players on the limp. Captain Koivu is out with a broken foot and may not make it back to play any games in the first round. There have been some hints that he will return, but if the Habs take an early series lead, there shouldn’t be any rush to get him back in the line up.
Mike Komisarek and Francis Bouillon have been out with an injured hip and foot respectively. While both were expected to suit up for Game 1, it may not happen. Komisarek appears closest to returning, but he has yet to receive medical clearance.
The concussed Patrice Bergeron has been cleared for full contact practice and some have said he’ll be back around Game 2 or 3 of the series. Bergeron’s return could give the Bruins a big boost and another offensive weapon.
Marc Savard, who suffered a small broken bone in his back when Steve Begin cross checked him over two weeks ago, remains optimistic that he’ll return in time for game one. Savard is one of the best playmakers in the league, so if the Bruins are going to compete with the Habs’ ability to score goals, he’ll need to be playing and playing well.
Thanks for reading this breakdown of the first round match up featuring the Habs and Bruins. Here’s hoping I’ll be back for round two!