Dear Montreal Canadiens, here's your gift for winning the Atlantic Division: a first-round date with the hottest team in hockey. Yikes.
And it's not just that the Ottawa Senators enter the playoffs sky-high after finishing the season on a remarkable 21-3-3 run. It is also that they won the season series with the Habs, taking three out of four and, most notably, beating Montreal twice during the stretch run. They won 4-2 at home on Feb. 18 when rookie goalie Andrew Hammond's 20-1-2 run began, and 5-2 on March 12 at the Bell Centre.
Two years ago, the Canadiens were division winners but were upset by the pesky Sens in the opening round. Both teams have changed a lot since then, especially the Senators through their rebuilt, youthful core; but also the Canadiens in the sense that goalie Carey Price has taken his game to a whole other level since that series in the spring of 2013. Because of that series, though, this rivalry has become real. There's a lot of bite in games between the teams since then. The emotion is genuine, and these teams hate each other.
This series has the potential to be a dandy, not only for the incredible goalie matchup between Hart Trophy front-runner Price and Ottawa's season savior (aka "The Hamburglar"), but also a for sexy showdown of Norris Trophy hopefuls in Montreal's P.K. Subban and Ottawa's Erik Karlsson.
This is going to be fun.
One of the main criticisms of Montreal's Atlantic Division-winning campaign has been that Price essentially cooked the books and covered up for a club that's poor in terms of puck possession. The Canadiens finished the regular season 23rd overall in shot attempt percentage (48.5). Ottawa didn't fare that much better, 18th overall at 50.23, although judging the Senators year as a whole is a tricky thing when you consider the night-and-day comparison between their incredible late-season push and their woeful first half.
The Senators ended up ninth in goals per game at 2.83, while the Canadiens struggled at 20th overall (2.61). The Habs were the No. 1 team in the NHL in goals against at 2.24, while Ottawa placed 13th at 2.54. Both teams struggled on the power play, Ottawa ranking 22nd overall at 16.8 percent and Montreal finishing 23rd at 16.5. They were close on the penalty kill, too, the Habs solid at seventh overall (83.7 percent) and the Sens ranking 11th at 82.9.
My favorite stat of all is the five-on-five goals for/against ratio, usually very telling of teams that go deep in the playoffs. Montreal finished fifth in the NHL at 1.18; Ottawa was 10th at 1.09. But again, the question is how you judge the Senators season-long numbers when you consider what they did over the final seven weeks.
There's something magical happening with the Senators, who seem to be the team of destiny. Their young players have risen in the second half of the season. They found a goalie in their system whom nobody knew about, and Hammond has written an unthinkable tale. General manager Bryan Murray is drawing inspiration from his team after his cancer diagnosis. There's just something about this team right now, and it's something more than hockey.
Montreal plays so much better as an underdog. Just look at last season when the Habs upset the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins. The favorite role is different, it adds more pressure. The Canadiens didn't react well to it in that 2013 upset by Ottawa, but this team has Price in goal and can beat anyone because of that. If he decides to shut the door, this could be another long spring run for the Habs, who reached the Eastern Conference finals last year.
Another wild card: the health of Habs leading scorer Max Pacioretty, who suffered an upper-body injury late in the regular season. There was encouraging news on the weekend that Pacioretty skated and felt better, but will he be ready for Game 1? This is a team that already struggles to score, and it cannot win without their star winger.
What else can you say about Price? The Olympic gold medalist ended the regular season leading the league in wins (setting a Habs franchise record with 44), goals-against average (1.96) and save percentage (.933). He is, by any measure, the best goalie in the NHL right now. That's what you hear when you talk to other GMs and coaches around the league.
He is going to win the Vezina Trophy as top goalie for sure, and perhaps even the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Still, Price had a 3.03 GAA and .887 save percentage in two games against Ottawa this season; a small sample size to be sure, but noteworthy.
If they were handing out an MVP award for the last quarter of the season, it would certainly go to Hammond, who went a ridiculous 20-1-2 with a .941 SP and 1.79 GAA down the stretch. I mean, come on. He went 10-0-2 on the road, and during his overall run beat the likes of Price, Jonathan Quick, Tuukka Rask, Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury. Just saying. Will the clock strike midnight on this guy? Maybe. But right now, he's the hottest thing going.
Ottawa's Mika Zibanejad had a career-high 20 goals and 46 points overall this season. The Sens' top line, with Kyle Turris centering amazing rookie Mark Stone and veteran Clarke MacArthur, really carried the load down the stretch, but if Zibanejad's unit can step it up in this series, it could be a real difference-maker for Ottawa.
Jeff Petry was a solid trade-deadline pickup by Montreal GM Marc Bergevin. The 27-year-old blueliner has grown in confidence and his impact on games has, too, after an initial adjustment period to his new team. Petry can muster offense, and if he can add to what Montreal already gets from Subban and Andrei Markov on the back end, he will be an X factor for the Habs.
I hate picking against Price, because he can very well decide to shut the door this spring and bring the Habs to a Cup final. In fact, it won't surprise me if he does just that. I can't shake the feeling I get from this team of destiny in Ottawa, though. There's just so much happening for them. And if Hammond keeps up what he's doing, it neutralizes Montreal's biggest advantage in Price.
Total gut pick here. Senators in 7.