The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens are set to meet for the 33rd time in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Bruins finished the season as the Northeast Division champions with 103 points, seven ahead of their bitter rival. The Habs, though, won the season series, going 4-2 against the Bruins. Game 1 is Thursday at 7 p.m. ET at TD Garden. Here's a scouting report on how these two teams match up:
This promises to be the most intriguing positional matchup between the two teams, with two Vezina Trophy candidates in Montreal's Carey Price and Boston's Tim Thomas. Thomas had a historic run this season, breaking the single-season record for save percentage with a .938 mark. Thomas also led the NHL in goals-against average with a 2.00 GAA. He had nine shutouts. Meanwhile, Price is the biggest reason the Habs made the playoffs. After an off year in which Montreal fans and media were calling for the team to trade Price and keep 2010 playoff hero Jaroslav Halak, the Habs kept Price and traded Halak away. They made the right choice, as Price went 38-28-6 with a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage. Thomas and Price could very well decide this series. Stats aside, both have the capability to steal the show.
The Habs have been short-handed on defense for the majority of the season, losing star blueliner Andrei Markov and defensive stalwart Josh Gorges early on, but somehow have made it through those obstacles. However, in a series against the big, physical forwards on the Bruins, they will have their hands full. Hal Gill is one of the best shutdown rear guards over the past three Stanley Cup playoffs but that is really the only answer the Habs might have to slow down what could be runaway freight trains rolling down the wing for the Bruins. The Habs do get great puck-moving skills from P.K. Subban, and he has shown a flair for the dramatic. They also have James Wisniewski, who led the blue line with 51 points. But with the likes of Norris trophy candidate Zdeno Chara, one of the best puck-movers in the NHL in Tomas Kaberle, and some physical force with Adam McQuaid, Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk, the Bruins get the nod here. This stingy blue line also helped the Bruins finish second in goals against, allowing only 2.3 goals against per game, while the Habs were eighth (2.5 per game).
The Bruins are probably one of the deepest teams up front in the playoffs. Claude Julien has had the luxury of being able to roll four lines with two very capable scoring lines in his top line of Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton and second line of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Mark Recchi. Add some possible scoring depth from Michael Ryder and Rich Peverley on the third line, and the Bruins have a solid attack. The Bruins finished fifth in scoring with 2.98 goals per game, and with their size and physical grit up front, they will be tough to stop if they stay out of the penalty box. Meanwhile, the Habs were 22nd in scoring with 2.6 goals per game. They were led up front in points by Tomas Plekanec (57) and in goals by Brian Gionta (29). Mike Cammalleri (47 points) and Andrei Kostitsyn (20 goals) can also pose a threat. But the biggest threat the Habs' forwards pose is their speed, and if they can utilize it, they could cause some frustration for the bigger, slower Bruins forwards and draw some penalties. But overall, the edge here goes to the Bruins.
Claude Julien and Jacques Martin are both very conservative coaches. The difference is that Julien has size and skill to work with, while Martin has speed and skill. Both coaches like to stay within the framework of their systems, and it has brought them enough success to still be coaching in the NHL. They both seem to get the most out of their players, and while sometimes they can be stubborn and not adapt to in-game ups and downs, they have had success. This is an even coaching duel.
Like goaltending, the power play could decide the series. The Habs have the better power play, finishing seventh in the NHL with a 19.7 percent success rate, while the Bruins ranked 20th and struggled all season on the man-advantage with a 16.2 percent success rate. If the Habs can get under the skin of the Bruins, who feed off emotion but can fail to discipline that emotion at times, Montreal will have a good chance of beating Boston.
The Bruins were ranked 16th on the penalty kill this season with an 82.6 percent success rate. For the first half of the season, this was one of the Bruins' strengths, but they struggled in the second half. Still, if they stay within their game plan, players such as Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Brad Marchand, with his five short-handed goals, can be very effective. The Habs were seventh in the NHL on the penalty kill with an 84.4 percent success rate. Their speed and tenacity make for a very difficult penalty kill to play against, and a player such as Brian Gionta (two short-handed goals) can burn you if you get too cute.
The biggest intangible in this series will be how each team handles the hype and emotions of this heated rivalry. There will be a media circus throughout, and the fans on both sides promise to be raucous and merciless. This is where veteran leadership comes in, and both teams are strong in this department. The Bruins have two players who have won the Stanley Cup in Mark Recchi (two) and Shawn Thornton (one), while the Habs have four Stanley Cup winners in Scott Gomez (two) and Brian Gionta, Hal Gill and Brent Sopel with one apiece. That experience is invaluable. But there are other players who have playoff experience and great leadership skills, such as Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron and captain Zdeno Chara, and Habs forward Mike Cammalleri, who wears an A for his leadership skills. Based on the six games between these two teams this season, the Habs seem to do a better job of utilizing their leadership to control emotions, and that will be a key element of the series.
Notable individual stats
Bruins vs. Canadiens this season:
Milan Lucic: 6 GP; 4G-5A-9P; 18 PIM; 13 Hits
Nathan Horton: 5 GP; 3G-4A-7P; 13 SOG
Zdeno Chara: 6 GP; 1G-4A-5P; 29 PIM; 13 Hits; 21 SOG
Tim Thomas: 4 GP; 2-1-1; 3.22 GAA ; .907 save pct.; 1 SO
Canadiens vs. Bruins this season:
Brian Gionta: 6 GP; 5G-1A-6P; 2 PP goals
Max Pacioretty: 4 GP; 4G-2A-6P; injured
P.K. Subban: 6 GP; 2G-2A-4P; 14 PIM; 2 PP goals
Carey Price: 6 GP; 4-2-0; 3.46 GAA; .900 save pct.
Recent playoff history
The Habs are 3-1 in their past four playoff series against the Bruins, winning in 2002 (in six games), 2004 (in seven games) and 2008 (in seven games), while the Bruins swept the Canadiens in 2009.
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.