It wasn’t pretty, with the Montreal Canadiens needing six games to eliminate the Ottawa Senators, but playoff hockey rarely is. And there’s a good chance it’s only going to get tougher from here on out as the stakes grow exponentially with each passing round.
That doesn’t mean there should be any less value placed on their accomplishments up to this point or that the first round was at all uneventful. Here are the top five lessons learned so far:
5. Canadiens Are Capable of Great Things
While the Canadiens ended their first-round series much like they earned their spot in them—relying on goaltender Carey Price to do most of the heavy lifting—they built their initial 3-0 series lead playing great two-way hockey.
The Habs, who finished with a 48.5% Corsi for rating at even strength during the regular season (23rd best), outshot Ottawa 130-98 over the first three games of the series, without really needing Price to bail them out… this against the hottest team in the league that went 21-3-3 over the final third of the season to punch their ticket to the postseason.
The Habs of course reverted to their traditional defensive shell late in the series, but people who assume they are one-trick pony had best get their eyes checked before placing bets on ensuing rounds. They play the way they do because they can… with a good chance to continue doing so into the Eastern Conference Final.
4. Pacioretty Probably Returned a Bit Early
It’s worth noting Montreal in part built their three-game lead and won the series without star forward Max Pacioretty. Lost to a concussion late in the season, Pacioretty missed four games, including the series opener, a stretch during which the Habs amazingly averaged four goals per contest.
Upon his return in Game 2, Pacioretty scored a key goal. However, up until he powered past an Ottawa Senators defenseman in Game 6 to feed Tomas Plekanec with a brilliant cross-slot pass for a scoring chance that ultimately sailed over goalie Craig Anderson, he generally seemed physically uninvolved.
Whether that was the result of residual side effects from the concussion and he wasn’t completely 100% (it is the playoffs after all) or he was just hesitant to get hit again, the play was a good sign that he’s out of the woods. The empty-net goal to seal the series victory was meanwhile a good sign that he’s back to his usual self (he scores a lot of those).
On the off chance he’s not, the Habs thankfully ended it relatively early with their eventual opponents having as many as two games remaining in their first-round series. The general need to lick their collective wounds after a physical series might just be enough to hope the Tampa Bay Lightning push the Detroit Red Wings to a seventh and deciding game.
3. The Regular Season Means Very Little…
… That is at least in regard to how the playoffs shape out. It is of course still very useful to determine seeding.
Nevertheless, looking solely at the Canadiens’ 1-3 regular-season record against the Senators, no one could have possibly predicted that Montreal was going to beat Ottawa or even just earn a commanding 3-0 lead en route to the series victory.
Fans should remember that should the Habs draw the Lightning (0-4-1 in the regular season), who will be looking to overcome a 3-2 series deficit tonight against the Wings, against whom the Habs were 4-0.
To further illustrate the point, Tampa was similarly dominant against Detroit in the regular season, going 3-1 against them. Maybe Tampa’s just not a team built for the playoffs and the ones Montreal should actually prefer to face, looking back to last year’s first-round sweep instead.
2. Canadiens Aren’t Going to Score a Lot of Goals
The one thing that does carry over from the regular season, at least in regard to the Canadiens, is their general inability to score.
The team with the worst offense among all 16 playoff teams entering the postseason, they are currently averaging just 2.00 goals per game, “good” for second-worst (Pittsburgh Penguins; 1.60), despite scoring seven in the first two games. Despite that obvious ability to put the puck in the net when push comes to shove, it’s probably for the best.
Actually, Dale Weise probably said it best, heading into Game 6, addressing the theory that Anderson had the Habs’ number:
“We’re not a team that scores very much anyways, so goalies can’t really get in our heads. We don’t score that much as it is, so goalies don’t really rattle us. Every goalie’s had our number all year.”
Another benefit? Should Montreal draw Detroit, perennial Jack Adams Award-candidate Mike Babcock just might get confused as to which line is Montreal’s best. The Habs may not roll four lines in the traditional sense, but they do rock ‘em…
1. Price is a Pretty Good Goalie
… And it’s all made possible thanks to that masked man in the crease.
There had been speculation since pretty much the New Year on that Price would be nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie. The news of his official candidature finally broke late last week, surprising no one… similar to his 43-save shutout performance in the deciding Game 6.
While one could no doubt come up with some deep philosophical meaning regarding Ottawa suffering its first shutout of the season in its final game, there’s a pretty obvious one as well: they just finally ran into a good-enough goalie to accomplish the feat (in extraordinary fashion, no less).
The high-pressure circumstances in which Price did it only add to his legend (and the chances of Montreal moving on past the second round).
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.