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May 2, 2013
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators

by Matthew Coller

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The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators will be duking it out for the battle of the feel-good story in this first round match. The Canadiens went from worst to second in one year while the Senators overcame an absurd amount of injuries to their best players to hang on to a spot in the postseason. With the Senators getting star defenseman Erik Karlsson back and the Habs showing signs of weakness toward the end of the season, could this matchup be ripe for upset?

Even strength

Montreal Canadiens close-game Fenwick: 53.6% (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Ottawa Senators close-game Fenwick: 51.9% (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Total: Montreal Canadiens, 1.7%

Both are very solid possession teams with deep top nines. On Montreal's side, their stars Max Pacioretty and Davis Desharnais drive the possession, but rookie Brandon Gallagher has also been a strong addition to the Canadiens in controlling the 5-on-5 game.

For the Senators, it was impressive to see them still ranking high in terms of possession at even strength despite missing last season's Norris Trophy winner Karlsson, one of the NHL's best in driving possession. What the Senators lack is a dominant 5-on-5 scorer, but the trade-deadline addition of Cory Conacher gives them a weapon they were short on before. Conacher scored an exceptional 2.50 ESP/60 between Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

Advantage: Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens offense vs. Ottawa Senators defense

Montreal Canadiens offensive: 18.6 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Ottawa Senators defense: -1.0 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Ottawa Senators goaltending: 26.0 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Montreal Canadiens, -6.4 GVT

The Canadiens like to get the puck deep and make it difficult for their opponents to retrieve the puck and exit their zone. They have a group of quick, hard-working forwards including Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec, Gallagher, and David Desharnais who apply pressure, and in turn, force mistakes.

The Habs also have finishers up front—eight forwards scored more than eight goals—who take advantage of those mistakes. This quality depth at forward is combined with two of the best offensive defensemen in the game, in P.K. Subban (who is brilliant at both keeping the puck in the O-zone at all costs and sneaking monster slap shots through traffic) and Andre Markov, who can pass the puck with anyone in the league when healthy. They drive the Canadiens' ability to get 30.6 shots per game on net while only allowing 26.9 against Carey Price.

The pressure will be on the Senators' defensemen to make snap decisions and sharp breakout passes. In this case, the Sens match up well with one of the NHL's best puck-moving defensemen in Karlsson and another proven passer in Sergei Gonchar. However, Montreal will no doubt try to take advantage of Ottawa's young set of forwards Mika Zibanejad, Jakob Silferberg, and Conacher by pressuring them on breakouts.

Ottawa's depth defensemen may struggle at times with the speedy Habs. Neither Chris Phillips or Marc Methot is particularly fleet of foot, and while they will win battles along the boards, Montreal will attack them and attempt force quick passes.

The Sens' biggest advantage on defense comes in the form of Craig Anderson—a proven goaltender who still ended up toward the top of the NHL in GVT despite missing a long stretch of games. He will cover a lot of Ottawa's mistakes.

Advantage: Ottawa Senators

Ottawa Senators offense vs. Montreal Canadiens defense

Ottawa Senators offense: -15.4 GVT (Rank: 27th in NHL)
Montreal Canadiens defense: 6.5 (Rank: 10th in NHL)
Montreal Canadiens goaltending: -5.5 (Rank: 18th in NHL)
Total: Ottawa Senators, -16.4 GVT

What a wild year it was for the Senators offensively. Their best scorer and possibly the best offensive defenseman in the NHL both go down, yet they found a way to not only score enough goals to get into the playoffs, but to rank first in the NHL in shots on goal per game. The Sens play a no-shot-is-a-bad-shot game. They often run three lines balanced with some grit and skill rather than just a talented top six and tough bottom six. Don't be surprised to see budding star Zibanejad with tough guy Chris Neil.

Their youth and balanced offense is what makes them dangerous. Sure, their top scorer had 31 points fewer than the NHL's leader, but they had 17 players score between 10 and 29 points. Any time Montreal's bottom lines or pairings are on the ice, the Senators will have an advantage offensively. Plus, getting Karlsson back in the lineup will provide a significant boost.

But Montreal's defense is great at preventing shots on goal; they were fifth in the NHL with 26.9 per game. Their top two defensemen, Subban and Markov, are known as offensive defenseman but both play an outstanding all-around game and will likely push 30 minutes per night.

The Habs' forwards are used in defined offensive and defensive roles. Players like Jeff Halpern, Travis Moen, and Brandon Prust are used to shutdown opponents, while the skilled top scorers are mostly given a high percentage of offensive zone starts. Matching lines will be difficult with the Sens running three or even four capable scoring lines.

Advantage: Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens power play vs. Ottawa Senators penalty kill

Montreal Canadiens power play: 7.0 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Ottawa Senators penalty kill: 9.2 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Total: Montreal Canadiens, -2.2 GVT

Montreal has one of the NHL's best power play defensemen in Subban, who scored an outstanding 6.73 PPP/60. The midseason addition of Michael Ryder improved an already strong power play for the Habs.

Ottawa has two dominant penalty killers in Methot and Phillips, and then they mix half the roster in around those two, including even giving time to Karlsson, Gonchar, and Alfredsson. Again, their depth and flexibility in roles provides them chances to put the freshest players on the ice for the penalty kill.

Advantage: Basically even

Ottawa Senators power play vs. Montreal Canadiens penalty kill

Ottawa Senators power play: -1.6 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Montreal Canadiens penalty kill: -6.8 GVT (Rank: 28th in NHL)
Total: Ottawa Senators, 5.2 GVT

The Senators weren't exactly the scariest team in the NHL while on the man advantage, but that could change in the postseason with the return of Karlsson. He led the Senators in power play ice time the last two seasons and scored a solid 4.44 PPP/60 in 2011-12. Of course, somebody will need to finish the chances he creates, and having Spezza on the shelf will still hurt the Sens' power play.

This matchup is really mediocre vs. mediocre. The Canadiens' penalty kill was unimpressive, lacking a shutdown player outside of Josh Gorges. However, the Habs don't take many penalties. They were 25th in total times shorthanded and 23rd in total shorthanded ice time.

Advantage: Ottawa Senators

Season series results

The two clubs played a total of four times with each team winning two. Outside of the first game, a 5-1 Montreal win, the total goal differential was zero (if you don't include the shootout goal).

Advantage: Even

Faceoffs

Montreal Canadiens: 49.8% (17th in NHL)
Ottawa Senators: 49.2% (21st in NHL)
Total: Montreal Canadiens, 0.6%

As goes for almost every series, there is little-to-no advantage to be gained in the faceoff battle. Jeff Halpern is Montreal's specialist, winning 56.1% of draws, while Zack Smith (54.8%) fills that role for Ottawa.

Advantage: Even

Injuries and intangibles

You can't say enough about how much the return of Karlsson will mean to Ottawa's offense. The Sens did a surprisingly great job of keeping their head above water long enough to get into the playoffs, but they wouldn't have had a fighting chance without him. However, missing their top-level veteran scorer Spezza is still a major disadvantage. Montreal enters the playoffs almost completely healthy—oh, how things can change in a year. In 2011-12, the Canadiens were hit by injuries just as badly as Ottawa was in 2012-13.

In terms of intangibles, both teams have veterans, leaders, and goalies that have been there. The Canadiens improved their toughness with Prust, who has brought edge and leadership. The Senators have a group that has been through so much adversity to simply be in the postseason that they shouldn't be intimidated by the stage.

Both teams also have coaches that are in the Jack Adams conversation, in Michel Therrien and Paul MacLean.

Advantage: Montreal Canadiens

Prediction

Montreal Canadiens: 23.0 GVT (3rd in NHL)
Ottawa Senators: 12.0 GVT (10th in NHL)
Total difference: Montreal Canadiens, 11.0 GVT

As even as these two teams are, Montreal has the ever-so-slight edge in pure talent. The Senators are likely to make up the difference with their goaltending and penalty killing, but ultimately, Montreal should edge them out.

Montreal Canadiens in six games

Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.

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