The feel good story of the 2010 playoffs is the Montreal Canadiens–unless your a Capitals fan. Jaroslav Halak has dazzled and the Canadiens defense has blocked more shots than Agent Smith from The Matrix. The Penguins were no slouch of their own though. While Alexander Ovechkin was proving he’s the most dominant player in the world, Sidney Crosby put his feet up and took a series off totaling only14 points in six games. A total of 12 different Penguins scored and Senators goalie Brian Elliot was chased from the net with the speed of an Ovechkin…post-game-seven interview. So with two hot teams entering play tonight who has the upper hand?
Jacques Martin is one of the great systematic coaches in the NHL today. He is the all-time leader in wins with both the Florida Panthers and the Ottawa Senators and is a four-time Jack Adams award finalist. The knock on Matin? He has not won a Stanley Cup despite leading the Senators to a President’s Trophy in 2002-2003. Still, Martin holds a doctorates in hockey knowledge and trying to figure his brain out is as hard as trying to figure out Bruce Boudreau’s coaching tactics.
By now everyone knows Dan Bylsma’s credentials. Disco Dan brings a sense of calmness to the bench and is a philosopher of systems in his own right. His offensive zone attack and grind it out strategy is an exact opposite from what Montreal faced in the first round. The only area of concern coming into the playoffs was if Bylsma could coach his team through a trap. That question seems to have disappeared with the Senators playoff run through. Head to head this is a tough comparison, but it is possible to argue that Bylsma is still getting better.
Advantage: Penguins (Slightly)
Montreal–Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec
Pittsburgh–Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal
The Penguins offense was clicking on all cylinders in the first round. Even the Pittsburgh power-play was working at a 25% pace. The key is weather or not Pittsburgh continues to get contributions from guys like Kris Kunitz, Kris Letang, and Matt Cooke. At an average of four goals per game, the Penguins are the second leading offense in the playoffs and have peppered the opposing goalie with 38 shots per game. This series will come down to the ability to grind it out in front of the net though. Look for Alexi Ponikarovsky to park his 6′ 4″ 229 pound frame in front and not move.
The Habs offense is a different story. Averaging only 28 shots per-game, Montreal spent much of the first round pinned in their own zone. Gomez and Cammalleri were brilliant in the upset of Washington but they will need secondary players to step up if they want to beat the Stanley Cup Champions.
Montreal: Andree Markov, P.K. Subban, Hal Gill
Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski
In round one, Montreal faced the most prolific offense in hockey and made them look about as vicious as a dyed-pink Maltese in a Christmas sweater. The Habs blocked 41 shots alone in game 7, and collapsed so tightly around the net that it would have been tough for Theoren Fleury to squeeze through all legs let along a puck. There are a couple of weaknesses to the Canadiens defense though, one of these being that they have no speed. If Pittsburgh wants to solve the shot-blocking problem they will be facing, they will have to get their offense started in the neutral zone. Odd-man rushes and breakouts are the key to scoring against the Habs. The only other fault of the defense is their lack of offense. Montreal dresses seven defensemen, one of which is offensive specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron who is limited to primarily power-play time. They are not a good puck moving unit and they do not factor in offensively. This didn’t seem to hurt them during the Washington series though. Look for the Canadiens defensemen to put faces in front of pucks and use their physicality to drive the Penguins from the front of the net.
Pittsburgh’s defense was solid against Ottawa. They contributed 12 points on the offense side of the puck and were rather stingy in front of a shaky Marc-Andre Fleury in games one and two. However, as the series progressed the defense regressed. Montreal did not have many opportunities against the Capitals but the ones they did get they made count. If the Penguins want to escape an upset they will need to avoid any ‘Mike Green’ moments. It is a simple game for the Pittsburgh defense: stay focused and keep hustling. There is no one on the Canadiens offense who the Penguins should be scared of.
The advantage here has to go to the Canadiens who played fantastic defense in front of Halak in round one. Pittsburgh is a totally different team though, and will not be scared of chipping a nail by crashing the net. Just because Montreal gets the edge here does not mean they will suffocate the Penguins offense.
Montreal: 20% PP (9th), 97% PK (2nd)
Pittsburgh: 25% PP (5th), 68% PK (15th)
While the Penguins may have shown that their powerplay wasn’t on life support in round one, it still wasn’t half as good as the Canadiens penalty kill. Montreal held Washington’s power-play to one goal on 33 attempts and used a timely power-play goal of their own to turn the tide in game 7. There is simply no better kill in the league right now than Montreal’s. Pittsburgh will have to put bodies in front and endure the abuse that comes with the job if they want to solve the Canadiens PK–the bad news for Montreal is that Pittsburgh already has a track record for grinding down low. Based on round one, the advantage has to go to the Habs in this category, but the aggressive kill of the Penguins and the effort in front of the net will be a complete change from what Montreal faced in the first round.
Montreal: Jaroslav Halak
Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury
People tend to forget that before Halak was playing out of his hockey pants at the end of round one, he was sitting in them on the bench in games three and four. Momentum tends to shift more in the actual games than it does from game to game–especially series to series. Jaroslav Halak is the better goalie right now; Marc-Andre Fleury is the better goalie. Both goalies were fantastic in their last three games and both will continue to step it up in round two. An interesting trait about both of these net-minders is that they get better as the game wears on. Look for Fleury to not be very busy in this series but for his experience to carry him through to the next round. Halak, while solid, mostly dealt with one-and-done shots from the Capitals. Part of the reason for this is because his rebound control is excellent, but no goalie can perfectly place a rebound everytime. Pittsburgh will have pressure at the net and will be shooting through screens. Do not be surprised to see Carey Price wobble in between the pipes before this series is finished.
The Cinderella story stops here. Too much hard work, grinding, and hustle for Montreal to overcome. Fleury is not Simeon Varlamov and should be able to hold the Canadiens few chances to just that–chances. Ultimately the Canadiens will do their best Alexander Semin impression and disappear from the NHL playoffs.
Advantage: Penguins in 6 games.