It's been a while since we had an all-Canadian matchup in the playoffs, mostly because Canadian teams outside of Vancouver haven't had a lot of success in the past few years. But that's exactly what we have in the first round in the East between the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.
Not since 2004 when the Sens played the Leafs (and the Flames faced the Canucks) have we had an all-Canadian affair. Believe it or not, this is the first time since 1928 that we've had an Ottawa-Montreal playoff battle. Of course, Ottawa didn't have a team for a long time and didn't return to the NHL until 1993. Even still, that's 20 years that these neighbors have never met.
It might not have the general appeal of the two Original Six teams in Canada playing (Montreal and Toronto) but it's still a border war of sorts. That just adds to the appeal of what is looking like a very intriguing series.
Why so intriguing? Well the Canadiens have been on a downslide in the recent weeks while the Senators have been starting to get healthy. Erik Karlsson is back, as are Milan Michalek and Craig Anderson. The last missing piece is Jason Spezza who has at least resumed skating. It doesn't have the typical imbalance you might expect from a 2-7 series.
Adding to that intrigue level is the competing nature of their styles. The Canadiens were a pretty balanced team in the first half of the season, but the defense/goaltending has faltered, forcing them to be a bit more of an offensive team. The Sens meanwhile make their living on defense this season with some of the stingiest numbers you'll see in the league. It's strength on strength.
If the regular season is any indication this should be tight. They split the four games this season, each winning one in regulation and another in a shootout. It's been a while since we've had two Canadian teams battling so it's possible they could make this one last as long as possible.
MON Offense vs. OTT Defense
The Canadiens were a somewhat deceptively strong offensive team this season. They finished fourth in the league with 3.04 goals per game, one of just six teams to average more than three per game. I say deceptive because they don't have any elite individual scoers, they have tremendous balance. In this short season they had eight players finish with double digits in goals and a total of 10 players finish with more than 20 points. The Habs struggled in the final weeks but it wasn't a fault of the offense.
The Senators have relied heavily on their defense this season. With the injuries to all of their scorers they had little choice, even if coach Paul MacLean believes you have to score your way to the Stanley Cup. The Sens finished with the second best goals against average this season with just 2.08 against per game. The impressive part about that is that they aren't particularly adept at preventing shots, finishing 23rd in the league with 31.3 against per night. But they get results, thanks to not giving up a lot of quality shots and the last line of defense.
OTT Offense vs. MON Defense
As mentioned, the Sens struggled all season to score partly thanks to injuries. When it was all finished they had the fourth fewest goals in the league this season. However they do have Karlsson back now and while he's a defenseman, he's as crucial of an offensive player as the Sens have, including Spezza. He generates a lot of offense from the blue line, firing at will. Still, scoring isn't their forte this season.
The Canadiens were a strong defensive team at one point this season and then the final few weeks happened. In a five-game span in April the Canadiens gave up 25 goals, pushing them down the rankings in terms of defense where they finished 14th in goals against. Despite the high number of goals against, the defense hasn't been completely atrocious, they gave up the fifth fewest shots in the league this season and are a top-10 puck possession team. That's why they retain the edge here because it's been an indictment more of the goaltending than Habs D.
This is where the Senators can scare the Canadiens. No matter who has been in net for Ottawa this season, they were spectacular. Craig Anderson finished with obscene stats for a goalie, recording a .941 save percentage and 1.69 goals against average in 24 starts, a number that was limited due to injury. His backup Robin Lehner had a .936 save percentage hinting at the fact that while they give up a lot of shots, they don't give up a lot of quality shots. When they do get back to the net they usually get stopped.
Then there's Carey Price, who more or less fell apart down the stretch. In 11 April games he had an .876 save percentage to finish the season at .905. Based on his career numbers we know that he's better than that but this is undoubtedly a major funk. The Sens don't do a lot of scoring so at this point they just have to hope that Price doesn't help them out with any soft goals. If the Habs are going to make any kind of run in the playoffs they will need Price to be back to the goalie they know.
The strengths pretty much balance out on the special-teams units.
The Canadiens are potent on the power play thanks largely to the presence of two power-play studs on the blue line in PK Subban and Andrei Markov. Markov's return to health has been a massive key for their success this season overall and that certainly holds true on the man advantage. But the penalty kill is almost as weak as the power play is strong. The Habs were 23rd in the league with a 79.8 percent kill rate.
Fortunately for that Montreal PK unit, the Sens still struggled to score on the power play finishing 20th in the NHL. But again, this is where the Karlsson has a big impact, he plays almost every minute of every power play and his presence at the point is a welcome return. The PK has no such issues with effectiveness. The Sens had a great 88 percent success rate this season, the best in the NHL.