The Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens aren’t heading into the playoffs in polar opposite directions, but one team has been on fire and the other has been below average. Since the trade deadline passed, the Habs have won 45 percent of their games. The Sens? 72.2 percent.
There are a ton of great storylines in this series, and while it would be tough to argue these two teams will produce the highest quality hockey in the first round, it might produce the most exciting hockey (as seen in the video above).
This series has one of the best goalies in the league going against the hottest goalie in the league, two of the best defensemen in the NHL, possibly hamburgers, and some up and coming good young forwards on each team. Oh, and it’s an all-Canadian match-up.
This should be pretty fun, but let’s take a deeper look to see who will win.
The Habs and Sens played each other four times, and yes all four games were with Dave Cameron behind the bench. Ottawa went 3-1-0 in the four games and outscored Montreal 14-9.
For the Senators, of all people, Erick Condra actually has a point in every game against Montreal this season, though one was an empty netter. Erik Karlsson leads the way overall though with three goals and six points against the Habs this year. And, of course, the Hamburglar started his NHL career against Montreal, so there’s that.
For Montreal, Max Pacioretty leads the way with 6 points as well, four of which were goals. The most important thing to note from the Habs end of this season series though is that Carey Price only played two of the games.
Yes the Senators did beat the Canadiens by comfortable scores in three of four, but you have to take it with a grain of salt considering the best player between the two teams only played half the games.
Although most series are won and lost on the run of even strength play, this series might be an exception.
It is no secret the Habs are not a great possession team and instead rely heavily on Carey Price to carry the mail. The Sens conversely have become a strong possession team under Dave Cameron, but if Price shuts the door and Ottawa continues to get strong goaltending, it is entirely feasible this series is decided by special teams execution, particularly in Montreal at home (more on that below).
Nonetheless, even strength hockey is where the run of events happy so let’s take a look.
On goal differentials Montreal comes out ahead with their overall +20 compared to Ottawa’s +13. The Habs led the league in goals against and for this comparison that means they gave up 20 less goals at 5v5 play, but the Senators scored ten more 5v5 goals.
In terms of possession, Ottawa has been steadily trending up since hiring Dave Cameron. Since February first they have been cruising at over 53 percent, which is bordering on elite. Montreal finished the season at 48.4 percent, and while it is not fair to compare a short sample to the entire season, the Habs have had the same coach all year and it has been a trend under Therrien since his Penguin days. For the season Ottawa still comes out ahead with an overall 50.3 percent.
Where even strength will really be decided is deployment. Are the Sens going to revert back to veterans at the first sign of trouble –as they did a few weeks ago—or will they stick with the kids that got them here? Cameron getting trigger happy and bumping down the minutes of the Condras, Pageaus and Lazars of the team for Zack Smith and Chris Neil is going to sway things in a completely different direction. Similarly, the Habs pushing up Eller’s and Galchenyuk’s minutes instead of putting Dale Weise back on the top line is a big change in things.
Eller in fact always elevates his game in the playoffs and is a big X-factor on the whole. The Sens should want to go with power against power, loading up Turris against the top line, Zibanejad against the second line and so on. The Habs would be better suited to play a match-up game then take the Sens straight up.
The Sens have the 5v5 advantage on the whole, but it will be more interesting to see which coach gets their match-ups and how they deploy their line-ups as the series progresses.
On the power play both teams boast an elite quarterbacks, so in a short series where anything can happen anyway, considering how good PK Subban and Erik Karlsson are it’s something to note. Oddly enough, despite having an elite defenseman each, neither team had a particularly strong man advantage finishing 22nd (Ottawa) and 23rd (Montreal).
It is noteworthy that the Senators finished with 280 power plays to Montreal’s 243. If we are to take the Sens’ strong possession numbers under Cameron at face value and couple it with Ottawa’s ability to draw more power plays, then the ice could tilt significantly to one side. In terms of times shorthanded, the teams were nearly identical with Ottawa being down 121 times to Montreal’s 123.
Where things get really interesting is the home and road splits, particularly in Montreal. At home the Habs had the 6th ranked home advantage this season. On the road, the Senators had the 6th best road penalty kill, so that’s the big match-up here.
The Habs don’t score very much on the whole (20th in goals per game), and they have the worst road power play in the entire NHL. But, if the Senators can’t stop Montreal in the Bell Center, considering Carey Price and the Habs having home ice advantage, they will be in trouble.
Strangely enough, the Habs don’t have a great home penalty kill, ranking 19th to Ottawa’s 13th ranked road power play. Even if the Senators can’t completely shut down Montreal’s home power play, they might be able to somewhat offset with the man advantage of their own.
In terms of strategy, it will be all about shutting down Erik Karlsson if you’re Montreal. His 30 power play points crushes the second closest guy on Ottawa (Kyle Turris with 16). The entire power play runs through him but he is just as dangerous with the puck as he is without it due to his ability to pinch in and cut backdoor for one timers. The Sens have a collection of players with more than a handful of power play goals –Clarke MacArthur, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, David Legwand—so they do enough to make you respect the other players, but it’s all about Karlsson here.
For the Sens it’s about working the top of the umbrella and getting the puck away from the dynamic duo of Subban and Markov. This season the two combined for 46 points and coupled with Thomas Plekanec are adept at creating triangles up around the top of the circle and moving in space with quick one touch passes until a one timer opens up. Erik Condra is one of the more underrated penalty killers and overall grinders in the league, and he is going to have his work cut out for him along with the rest of Ottawa’s penalty killing unit.
Carey Price has been the best goaltender in the league throughout the course of the season and should win not only the Vezina award, but also the Hart. The Habs finished first in the league in goals against, and it wasn’t because of their stifling defence.
Of all true starters in the league, Price led them all in save percentage at .933.
If there is one goalie that can give him a run for any sort of goaltending powers at the moment though, it’s Andrew Hammond. In 24 games he has a save percentage of .941, and a record of 22-1-2.
Price has the pedigree, longevity and overall talent edge to get the obvious nod, but Hammond has been stellar this year and it isn’t as if Craig Anderson is some bum because he has a .923 save percentage this season.
Ottawa is playing with house money at this point while fans in Montreal have been thinking about these playoffs since Carey Price got hurt in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. The popular pick is the Senators as they have been red hot for months, have been playing in essentially playoff games for weeks, have become a good possession team under Cameron, have goaltending, and seemingly the “it” factor.
But the Habs have Price. Mentally they have been preparing for these playoffs all season while the Sens scratched and clawed their way in.
That’s not to say the Habs don’t have other good players, because they do (Subban is elite, Pacioretty is one of the best goal scorers in the league, Galchenyuk and Gallagher are great young players, to name a few), but they will live and die off Price.
I don’t want to bet against Price, but I do want to bet that the Senators will be able to get goaltending that won’t bury them, and after that I like the Sens roster over the Habs. Plus they just seem to have their number in general. Sens in six.