For the second year in a row, Montreal squeaked into the final playoff spot in the East last spring. Unlike the previous year when the Canadiens exited meekly after being swept aside by the Bruins, this time they made some noise.
The Habs shocked top-seeded Washington in the opening round and defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round to reach the conference finals for the first time since winning the Cup in 1993. The improbable run ended there as Philadelphia bullied its way past the undersized Canadiens in five games. This year’s Montreal squad isn’t any bigger or tougher, but it remains a fast and skilled group that now boasts some extra confidence from their postseason success. The Canadiens gambled on keeping Carey Price in goal over playoff hero Jaroslav Halak, and how Price plays this year will likely determine whether the Habs will be trying to squeeze into one of the final playoff spots again or if they’ll be a legitimate contender in the East.
2009-10 Record: 39-33-10, 88 points (4th Northeast Division; 8th Eastern Conference; lost in Eastern Conference finals to Philadelphia, 4-1)
Bruins record vs. Canadiens: Boston trails the all-time series 263-333-103-6, and went just 1-3-2 against Montreal last year. The Canadiens opened with a 2-1 shootout win in Boston on Nov. 5, rolled to a 5-1 victory in Montreal on Dec. 4 and won another shootout in Boston 3-2 on Feb. 4 before the Bruins finally won 3-0 at Montreal on Feb. 7. The Habs then won 4-1 in Boston on March 2 and 3-2 in Montreal on March 13.
When to watch: The Bruins will host the Habs on Thursday, Nov. 11, Wednesday, Feb. 9 and Thursday, March 24, while traveling to Montreal on Thursday, Dec. 16, Saturday, Jan. 8 and Tuesday, March 8.
Familiar faces: Longtime Bruins blueliner Hal Gill (Bolton, Mass./Providence College) will be starting his second season in Montreal, while goalie Alex Auld, who backed up Tim Thomas in 2007-08, was signed by the Canadiens this summer. Forward Max Pacioretty hails from New Canaan, Conn., while Montreal’s 2009 draft yielded Mac Bennett (Warwick, R.I.) in the third round and Louis LeBlanc in the first. LeBlanc attended Harvard last year, but will play in the QMJHL this season.
Key additions: G Alex Auld (free agent); F Dustin Boyd (trade with Nashville); D Alexandre Picard (free agent); F Lars Eller (trade with St. Louis); F Ian Schultz (trade with St. Louis); G Karri Ramo (trade with Tampa Bay)
Key losses: G Jaroslav Halak (traded to St. Louis); F Dominic Moore (signed with Tampa Bay); F Glen Metropolit (signed with EV Zug, Switzerland); F Sergei Kostitsyn (traded to Nashville); F Georges Laraque (bought out, retired); G Dan Ellis (signed with Tampa Bay); F Gregory Stewart (signed with Edmonton); D Shawn belle (signed with Edmonton); G Cedrick Desjardins (traded to Tampa Bay); D Paul Mara (free agent); D Marc-Andre Bergeron (free agent)
Burning question: Did the Habs make the right choice keeping Price over Halak?
Montreal fans hoped the franchise had found the heir to Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy when the Canadiens drafted Price fifth overall in 2005. But Price has fallen well short of that in his first three seasons, posting a mediocre 2.73 GAA and .912 save percentage in his first 134 games. Those numbers dip even further in the postseason, where Price is just 5-11 with a 3.17 GAA and an .894 save percentage. After going just 13-20-5 with a 2.77 GAA and a .912 save percentage last year, Price lost his starting job to Halak (26-13-5, 2.40, .924), who went on to almost singlehandedly lift Montreal to playoff wins over Washington and Pittsburgh. Halak averaged 45 saves in the four wins against Alex Ovechkin and the Caps, then averaged 36 saves in the four victories over Sidney Crosby and the Pens. Still, Montreal opted to trade Halak to St. Louis, even though Price remains unsigned as a restricted free agent. Montreal did trade for the rights to Dan Ellis, but did not sign him, leaving them with former Bruin Auld as their fallback option if Price falters once again.
2010-11 outlook: While preventing goals might be a problem, scoring them shouldn’t be. Even with several key forwards missing long stretches of the season with injuries, Montreal got plenty of production from the likes of Michael Cammalleri (26-24-50 in 65 games), Brian Gionta (28-18-46 in 61 games), Tomas Plekanec (25-45-70), Scott Gomez (12-47-59), Andrei Kostitsyn (15-18-33 in 59 games) and Benoit Pouliot (17-11-28 in 53 games). There’s not much size or toughness around to protect that group though, so more injuries could be coming. Georges Laraque didn’t work out in his return to his hometown, but the Habs would have been wise to replace him with some semblance of a physical presence as the Eastern Conference has loaded up on heavyweights this offseason. The defense will begin the season short-handed as Andrei Markov (6-28-34 in 45 games last year) will be out until November at least after suffering a torn ACL on a hit by Matt Cooke in the playoffs. Boston and Montreal fans may finally have something they can agree on in their shared a hatred for Cooke and his cheap shots. Slick-skating rookie P.K. Subban, who was electrifying in the playoffs, will try to fill the void with some offense from the blue line.
Did you know? It has now been 16 seasons since the Canadiens last raised the Cup, winning their NHL-best 23rd championship (they also won a 24th Cup in 1916 before the NHL formed) in 1993. That’s the longest Cup drought in franchise history, though they aren’t likely to find any sympathy from Bruins fans who have been waiting since 1972. Prior to last year’s run, Montreal had won just one playoff series since the lockout. Naturally that came against the Bruins in 2008, as the B’s and Habs have clashed 32 times in the postseason, with Montreal winning 24 times.
Next: We’ll head over to Ontario to check on the Senators on Sunday.