When the Montreal Canadiens skate onto the Bell Centre ice before an exhilarated crowd on Wednesday night, they will be looking to avenge an ill-fated 2013 playoff series against the Ottawa Senators en route to what will, hopefully, be the 25th Stanley Cup in franchise history.
No matter the team’s success, the Habs could not have landed a harder draw for Round 1. No one expected the Ottawa Senators to qualify for the playoffs when in February they were ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference. Now, the Habs, who have carried the weight of the playoff burden all season, are forced to play a bitter rival; one that not only believes it’s invincible but is also one (of only three teams) that had a winning record against the Habs during their exceptional regular season.
In the lockout shortened season, before realignment and the revised divisional playoff format, the 7th seeded Ottawa Senators dismantled new head coach Michel Therrien and his 2nd seeded Montreal Canadiens squad. At the time, the Habs were a young team, much like the Senators are now, and were quickly dispatched in a 5 game gong show; one that included the attempted decapitation of Lars Eller in Game 1.
Both teams have changed drastically since that series, even if the rivalry lingers.
Michel Therrien is no longer the novice who was easily out-coached by Paul MacLean; and MacLean is no longer head coach of the Senators. Last season, Therrien led his team to the Conference Finals while the Senators degenerated and missed the playoffs altogether.
The different paths the two clubs have taken since their meeting in 2013 will ultimately inform this match up: The Sens will ride out their unparalleled momentum based on the performances of their unknowing rookies; and the Habs will focus on harnessing their recent playoff success and channel it into becoming a contender.
Sens Rookies vs. Habs Veterans
The Senators are in the playoffs thanks, in large part, to the exceptional play of unknown players.
Mark Stone scored twice on Saturday to take the rookie scoring title. pic.twitter.com/2UM5p5XpHp
— NHL (@NHL) April 12, 2015
Twenty-two year-old forward Mark Stone was the offensive force that converted the Sens’ offense into wins. He won the rookie scoring race largely based on his play over the final quarter; and had a nine-game point streak (8-5-13) to end the season.
In goal, Andrew Hammond posted an unprecedented 20-1-3 record, with just 1 NHL game on his resume prior to February. His GAA and SV% numbers match Habs phenom Carey Price, albeit over a much smaller sample size, and he allowed 2 goals or less in his first 12 NHL starts.
Head coach Dave Cameron has been credited with turning the franchise around.
However, none of the above have any experience in the NHL playoffs. In fact, all three cornerstones of the Sens’ recent success will be breathing their first playoff breaths in Montreal’s notoriously intimidating Bell Centre.
The Habs, on the other hand, benefit from a lineup that is largely intact from last season’s deep, though ultimately disappointing, run to the Conference Finals. Goaltender Carey Price’s Vezina, and possibly Hart, Trophy-worthy season felt like atonement (for an injury that pulled him from the series) and preparation for this season’s elimination rounds.
The only playoff rookies on the Habs roster going into Wednesday’s game are not clutch players but supporting ones, like Nathan Beaulieu, Jacob de la Rose and Jeff Petry (the plight of being a longtime Oiler…). As much as they will be needed in order for the team to succeed, the Habs’ best players have years of playoff disappointment to tap into and learn from; players like Price, P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty (who will not dress for Game 1).
There are still many overlapping players from the 2013 series on the Senators roster; and many of those players know how to manhandle the Habs. They cannot be discounted. But neither can a cohesive Habs team that became an NHL powerhouse this season because of an epic, and unlikely, playoff run in 2014.
Sens Momentum vs. Habs Pressure
While experience is a crucial component to playoff success, with it comes the pressure to succeed. The Habs know and understand that pressure. The Senators are playing without it.
There is no team in the NHL with more momentum going into the playoffs than the Ottawa Senators; no team has overcome such a significant point deficit to clinch a berth in the elimination round. On February 10th, the Senators were 13th in the Eastern Conference; on the final day of the regular season they needed 1 point to clinch the first wild card spot. After two months of must-win games, the Senators are bolstered by a solid game plan, euphoric confidence in their ability and almost no pressure to succeed. Anything that happens from here will be icing on the cake.
The Habs, on the other hand, have no momentum going into this first round series.
The Canadiens have been leading the Atlantic Division since Feb. 11. Habs have won only 14 of 28 games since then.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) April 11, 2015
It’s understandable that any team assured a playoff spot might slacken their effort toward the end, especially as players suffer from fatigue, start to lose weight and want to avoid injury. But it’s a lot more difficult to generate momentum than it is to ride its energy.
Most teams that succeed in the playoffs do so after a strong finish to the regular season, as the Sens had. The Habs played their worst hockey in March (though their ‘worst’ included back to back shutouts by Price) and it’s easy to develop bad habits with weakened efforts. But even with underachieving play down the stretch, the Habs never waivered on their focus of making the playoffs and exceeding once there.
There is enormous pressure on this club to succeed and improve on last year’s playoff run, but unlike past years that pressure mainly comes from within: the pressure the players have placed on themselves to succeed. Thanks to an increased focus on possession numbers and advanced analytics, the Habs, despite their strong standing in the NHL rankings, are considered a middling or overrated team destined to lose this series. By contrast, the Habs themselves have unrelenting confidence in their ability to win games against elite teams, and a willingness to prove it.
The Ottawa Senators have the benefit of being the pressure-less underdogs heading into the playoffs. Their powerhouse rookies may not understand what they are in for but they also don’t need to as long as they have enough gas to keep going. On the other hand, at some point the Sens’ Cindarella story line, like momentum, will shift and the Habs have waited a full regular season to make sure it does.
Cheers to the 2014-2015 NHL Playoffs: