The stage is set for another epic playoff series between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens as they will meet in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals starting Thursday night in Boston. Here are five keys to success for the Bruins to advance to the second round:
As is usually the case in the playoffs, goaltending could very well be the deciding factor in this series. With two Vezina Trophy candidates in Carey Price and Tim Thomas squaring off, goals figure to be tough to come by and each team will need to take advantage of every chance it gets.
Thomas broke the NHL record for save percentage this season with a .9382 mark and was 35-11-9 with a brilliant 2.00 goals-against average and nine shutouts. Although Price struggled a bit down the stretch, he is the sole reason the Habs were battling for a playoff spot and not draft positioning in the final month. Price was a workhorse, playing 72 games and going 38-28-6 with a 2.35 GAA, .923 save percentage and eight shutouts.
Thomas is 2-1-1 with a 3.22 GAA and .907 save percentage against the Canadiens this season, while Price is 4-2-0 with a 3.66 GAA and .899 save percentage against the Bruins. But Price has allowed 13 goals in his past two starts at TD Garden. If he falters again in Boston, the Bruins will be in good shape since they have home-ice advantage.
If Thomas can continue his historic season and play the way he has since he started the second game of the season in Prague, then the Bruins should get the edge here.
Playing their game
The Bruins thrive off a physical and structured game, and they will need to keep those elements of their game going against the Habs. As witnessed in their losing streaks this season, when the Bruins try to get too cute or play a finesse game, they usually lose. That would be a particular concern against a team like Montreal, which has an abundance of skill and speed. If this turns into a speed race, the Habs will win.
The Bruins' success comes from gritty and hard-working hockey, and that is what they will need to display for 60 minutes in each game of this series. Boston must dictate the play from the opening faceoff and play north-south hockey, using its forecheck and creating traffic in front with its size advantage. Getting the first goal will help a lot as the Habs can play as close as you can get to a neutral zone trap in today's NHL.
Probably the biggest Achilles' heel for the Bruins this season has been their power play. The Bruins frequently have failed to bury their opponents because they couldn't cash in on the power play.
Coach Claude Julien and the players tried to sugarcoat this weakness for most of the season by pointing to a lack of calls against opponents or suggesting the Bruins were moving the puck well and creating chances, but the bottom line is that the Bruins haven't been playing their game on the man advantage. When the Bruins are down low and in the dirty areas, their power play succeeds. They do move the puck well more often than not, but that means nothing if they're not in front of the net picking up loose pucks and creating havoc.
The Bruins' power play was ranked 20th with a 16.2 percent success rate.
The penalty kill, meanwhile, was ranked 16th with an 81.7 percent success rate. While the PK struggled down the stretch, that really shouldn't be as big a concern even against a good Habs power play that ranked seventh with a 19.7 percent success rate. The power play is what really needs to click.
Julien and Canadiens coach Jacques Martin are very similar in style, and both can aggravate their fans and media. But the defensive-minded system each coach applies is what has made them successful in the NHL.
Last spring, Julien's style got his team to within one period of the conference finals, but he failed to adapt to the ups and downs of the series against the Philadelphia Flyers while maintaining the basis of his system. There were clear momentum shifts in that series, when the Flyers staged their historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit, most notably the loss of David Krejci in Game 3. Julien also could have tried to stem the Flyers' momentum by switching goalies after Game 5. True, Thomas was hurting, but he may have been better than a shell-shocked Tuukka Rask.
There will be tons of hype and emotion involved in this series as the longtime rivals square off for the 33rd time. Prior to the Bruins-Devils game Sunday, Bruins winger Milan Lucic spoke of the Bruins-Habs rivalry and the upcoming series.
"The hatred is definitely there," Lucic said. "That's what makes it fun and what makes it a great rivalry. We can't overthink it."
Lucic is exactly right. While the Bruins can use the intensity of the rivalry to their advantage because they play a physical game, they can't let the sideshow atmosphere get to them. They'll need to keep their emotions in check.
The Canadiens can be pests and get under the skin of the Bruins, and that's exactly what they will try to do in this series. They know they can't beat the Bruins with physicality, but they can beat them mentally and emotionally.
The Bruins must remain disciplined and pick their spots if they decide to return a hook or questionable hit. Otherwise they will spend plenty of time in the penalty box.
Another key for the Bruins will be to block out the deafening sound at the Bell Centre and the momentum the Habs get from their fans. Boston needs to silence the crowd with goals, not retaliatory hits.
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.