With a 6-1 record since the Olympic break, Montreal is rolling at the right time. Their scorers are scoring, their grinders are grinding, their defensemen are defending and their goalie is stopping the puck. The concern most people have right now with the Habs is their powerplay but with Cammalleri and Bergeron returning in the next 7-10 days, which should provide an immediate spark. Perhaps it’s premature, but Montreal is comfortably in a playoff spot and barring a collapse they should be playing in at least one round of playoff hockey. I would argue that of all the teams in the playoff picture right now (besides Detroit), the Canadiens have really earned it. A complete roster overhaul in the offseason, a new coach, injuries to their top players and a distracting 70 game goalie controversy; Montreal deserves a ton of credit for pulling together at the right time of the year.
However (and you knew there was a however coming); how good is this team? Can they really compete with the best teams in the East in a 7 game series? That’s what I’d like to investigate. Assuming Washington finishes on top, Buffalo wins the Northeast and is the #3 seed, and the Devils and Penguins round out the top 4; here’s the ranking of the teams Montreal has the best chance to beat in the first round of the playoffs.
4 – PENGUINS (toughest matchup)
The Penguins are coming off 2 consecutive successful postseason runs that took them to the finals twice, with a Stanley Cup last year. This year they currently rank as the #2 team in the East, and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t go on another run.
Advantage Montreal – From October 5, 2007 to April 11, 2010; Pittsburgh will have played in 290 games, and that does not include the games some of their stars played at the Olympics. A fatigued Penguins team might be caught off guard by the speed and skill of the Habs.
Advantage Pittsburgh – That’s actually all I’ve got! I see this as a terrible matchup for Montreal. Pittsburgh is deep offensively and will create tough situations for Montreal’s D in terms of matching up against Crosby AND Malkin. The Penguins have a very mobile defense that can go stride for stride with the Canadiens’ forwards. Fleury is a proven playoff winner and gives the Penguins the goaltending advantage over Halak. For those who will be quick to suggest Montreal’s PP can win a series for them over Pittsburgh; the Pens have a top 10 ranked PK.
Season Series – Penguins 3 wins, Montreal 1 win
3 – DEVILS
New Jersey’s “M.O.” in terms of success has been the same forever; responsible two way forwards, good team defense and Martin Brodeur. That’s the Devils for you, except this year they have more star power up front, and Brodeur hasn’t exactly been the Brodeur everyone is used to. His time is running out, and this might be his last chance to win a cup.
Advantage Montreal – New Jersey’s no name defense will be exposed by someone in the postseason, and it could be as early as round 1 against Montreal. Besides Paul Martin who has been injured most of the year, there is no one to really matchup against Montreal’s top forwards. Age is catching up to Martin Brodeur and it’s very possible that Halak (or Price) can outplay him in a 7 game series. The Devils have a middle of the pack PK that Montreal can expose as well.
Advantage New Jersey – The thing that makes the Devils scary is their ability to have Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner on one line, and to have Kovalchuk and Elias on another. Their top 6 forwards are as dangerous as it gets in the East and given the fact that Montreal’s Achilles heel is their defensive corps, I don’t like their chances. The Devils have struggled on the PP this year, but with the pending return of Paul Martin, I expect that this will become one of their team strengths in the playoffs. At the end of the day, as much as I’ve pointed out that Brodeur is getting old, I would bet most Montreal fans would be more confident and comfortable with Brodeur in net than whoever the Habs will have. If all else fails for the Devils, the battle of the Jacques’ is not even close. I’ll take Lemaire to win a series over Martin.
Season Series – Devils 2 wins, Montreal 1 win (1 more game on March 27)
2 – CAPITALS
Washington has been a force all year, with their bread and butter being their potent offense. By the end of the year they will likely have 8 players with 20+ goals, which is pretty scary when you think of the importance of secondary scoring in the postseason. Naturally, their PP has been dynamite as well, ranking #1 in the NHL.
Advantage Montreal – Whether it’s Montreal or another team, someone will knock off Washington because of a favorable goaltending matchup. With 2 scoring lines, Montreal doesn’t have quite the firepower that Washington has, but they might be able to win high scoring games due to the Capitals’ marginal defense and questionable goaltending. Besides Jeff Schultz, who most people probably don’t know, Washington just doesn’t have adequate personnel on the back end to go on a long playoff run. Of course, Montreal has to worry about Alex Ovechkin. The big question in this series would be if Dominic Moore, Travis Moen and Andrei Markov can reduce his impact on the game at 5 on 5 and turn it into a special teams and goaltending battle. Ultimately, this series would come down to the special teams matchup, and with Bergeron and Cammalleri back, I like the chances of Montreal’s #2 PP outplaying the Caps bottom 5 PK. If the Habs can manage to shut down the Caps PP, they can win the series.
Advantage Washington – The great thing about the Capitals is that they don’t really need to adjust because of how good their offense is. When you can score almost at will, you can play any type of game against any type of team and be successful. Even if Montreal, or for that matter any team, can take Ovechkin out of a series, they have enough scoring to be able to compensate for that. Despite a terrible PK which could cost them, acquiring Scott Walker and Eric Belanger will help them a lot in that area. In what is a common theme, Montreal’s lack of depth on defense will have a great deal of difficulty in trying to slow down the type of scoring power that the Capitals bring to the table. Despite below average defense and a very capable Montreal top 6 up front, if Bruce Boudreau matches power against power, the Capitals’ skill level is greater than the Canadiens’ and can therefore nullify a team weakness. All things considered, if Washington can get just average goaltending, they win the series.
Season Series – Capitals 2 wins, Montreal 2 wins
1 – SABRES (best matchup)
Buffalo missed the playoffs last year because of injuries to Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek. This year they have been solid most of the season, due in part to a healthy lineup for the most part. A very well rounded and well coached team, the Sabres could make some noise in the playoffs, despite lacking star power outside of Ryan Miller.
Advantage Montreal – Montreal’s weaknesses are not major liabilities against Buffalo, making this the best possible matchup for the Habs. With the exception of Tyler Myers, Buffalo is nothing special on defense and not exactly that mobile. Out of the 4 teams, Montreal’s forwards will do the most damage against the Sabres D. Up front, Buffalo’s top goal scorer has 22 goals (Vanek) and Tim Connolly leads the team with 60 points. The Canadiens’ defense would have it easier against Buffalo than against any of the 4 teams simply due to the lack of a major impact player.
Advantage Buffalo – 3 reasons; Ryan Miller, PK and Lindy Ruff. Ryan Miller is arguably the best goalie in the world, the Sabres have the #4 ranked PK in the NHL which should be able to stop Montreal’s PP and I am biased but I think Lindy Ruff is one of the top coaches in the league as well. Even though Buffalo doesn’t have a clear number one scoring line, they have enough players capable of scoring that they can play an attack style of hockey that can yield a surprising amount of goals. While this is as easy as it gets for Montreal, there are some teams that would struggle against Buffalo.
Season Series – Buffalo 3 wins, Montreal 1 win (2 games remaining on Mar-24 and Apr-3)
About the Author
Written by Corey Krakower
I am the Director of NHL Content & Habs writer for ProSportsBlogging.com; I have spent 8 seasons behind the bench as a minor hockey coach; and I am the future GM of the Montreal Canadiens (according to my mom). I spend my days managing the Harrow Sports brand in my hometown of Montreal and I moonlight as a Hockey Advisor for Pi Athlete Management. Most importantly, I'll throw anyone under the bus for a laugh.