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April 14, 2011
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens

by Tom Awad

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In my opinion, there is no rivalry in the NHL that matches that between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. This rivalry has both a historical component, with both teams being part of the Original Six NHL franchises, and a modern element: the Bruins and Canadiens have met in the playoffs 14 times since 1984, with the Canadiens taking eight of those series. The historical rivalry between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs has been a joke for the last forty years, as the Leafs have sucked the majority of the time, while modern rivalries like Detroit-Colorado do not have the same epic scale as a matchup that once featured Bobby Orr, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur and Raymond Bourque.

Historical Boston-Montreal animosity is not the only thing feeding the tension in this series: far more important is the injury sustained by Max Pacioretty after an ambiguous check by Zdeno Chara left him sidelined with a concussion and broken vertebrae.

Boston and their Percentages

Having outscored their opponents by 55 goals, the Bruins have the best goal differential in the Eastern Conference and second in the NHL only to Vancouver. However, this stat misleads you into thinking the Bruins are a dominant team; in practice, they are almost even on shot differential, having outshot their opponents by only 14 shots (2113 to 2099) at even strength. Their excellent results have come primarily from one source: Tim Thomas, who has posted the highest unadjusted save percentage in NHL history. While Thomas is quite good (few believed me when I ranked him second among NHL netminders after his poor 2009-10 season), he is playing over his head and is unlikely to maintain this pace over the playoffs. By the way, we have seen this Bruins team before: in 2008-09, the Bruins led the league in goal differential despite being even in shots, due to the heroics of Thomas and their players collectively burying 11% of their shots. The odds caught up to them in the playoffs and they were eliminated in the second round by a run-of-the-mill Carolina Hurricanes team (which promptly lost to the Penguins in four games).

Montreal's Different Team

Many Montreal fans would like to base their expectations on the fact that this Canadiens team is better than last season's underdogs who managed to win two playoff rounds against powerhouse Capitals and Penguins teams. Indeed, the Canadiens are a better team than last year: they no longer get massively outplayed at even strength, and they have a plan other than "hope the goalie stops everything". Part of the credit can go to defenseman P.K. Subban, whose puck movement abilities have allowed the Canadiens to survive just fine without Andrei Markov. Another revelation was Max Pacioretty, who was very solid at even strength and provided some spark on the power play.

Boston Offense vs. Montreal Defense

Boston Bruins Offense: +20.0 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Montreal Canadiens Defense: -0.4 GVT (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Montreal Canadiens Goaltending: +18.7 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, +1.7 GVT

Up front, the Bruins are a pretty top-heavy team in terms of talent: because they are so tightly pressed against the salary cap, they have been forced to jettison mid-level talent like Marco Sturm and Blake Wheeler. As key are their top two centers, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. While he may officially be the #2 center, Bergeron is the key player, a player multi-talented enough to have played for the best hockey team on Earth, Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics; he remains one of the NHL's best faceoff men, and will be on the ice whenever the Bruins will be protecting a one-goal lead lead in the game.

With the notable exception of Hal Gill, the Canadiens defense corps is more well-known for its offensive talent than its defensive play, but P.K. Subban and Roman Hamrlik can play in their own end as well. The Canadiens' top forwards are also responsible backcheckers: Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta earn their hefty paychecks. They also have the luxury of knowing that whatever makes it through will probably get stopped by Carey Price. Advantage: Even

Montreal Offense vs. Boston Defense

Montreal Canadiens Offense: -11.0 GVT (Rank: 22nd in NHL)
Boston Bruins Defense: -2.7 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Boston Bruins Goaltending: +36.3 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Montreal Canadiens, -44.6 GVT

The Canadiens have no real offensive superstar. Last season, their playoff run was keyed by Michael Cammalleri's 13 goals, but this season he has been only respectable: a 6.2 OGVT in 67 games from the team's top offensive player won't strike fear in Boston hearts. The Canadiens would love to have several Plekanecs, who can score and play in any situation, and he earns his keep as the #1 center, but he was the only Canadien to break 50 points. The fact is that the Canadiens, while decently well equipped, are a below-average offensive team laden with small forwards. They shine on the power play, but less so at even strength.

Boston's defense is nothing to write home about: they allowed 31.9 shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, the second-highest mark in the league after Carolina. But much of that was due to having the lead in many of their games. Regardless, without a world-beating performance from Tim Thomas (or Tuukka Rask, had it come to that), Boston would have been scrambling for a playoff spot rather than comfortably leading their division: Thomas' 40 GVT was worth 13 points in the standings, without which Boston would have dropped to ninth place in the East. Regardless, Thomas is there, and two Vezinas in three years is no fluke.

Advantage: Boston Bruins by a mile

Boston Power Play vs. Montreal Penalty Kill

Boston Bruins Power Play: -3.7 GVT (Rank: 20th in NHL)
Montreal Canadiens Penalty Kill: +5.2 GVT (Rank: 10th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, -8.9 GVT

Boston's power play underperformed this season, but that was more an issue of percentages than it was their inability to create chances: at 52.2 shots per 60 minutes, they were marginally over the league average of 51.4. Boston has not typically been a strong power play team over the last few years except when Marc Savard was in the lineup: in 2009-10 he led all Bruins with 17 power play points despite only playing 41 games. This season, the power play point leader was Marc Recchi, who continues to defy age and expectations. The power play should benefit from the addition of Tomas Kaberle, who has helped create scoring chances, but so far the results have been underwhelming.

The Canadiens' weakness remains their propensity to take too many penalties. In 2009-10, they took 45 more penalties than their opponents, the worst mark in the NHL; this season they brought it down to 35, only third-worst; but the two teams worse than them, the Ottawa Senators and the Colorado Avalanche, aren't allowed within 1000 feet of any NHL playoff game. The Canadiens penalty kill is pretty good, but having to kill an extra 2 minutes every game takes its toll on players over a physical seven-game series. The main man on the penalty kill is Gill, who was #5 among NHL skaters in total penalty-killing ice time with 263 minutes and 3:30 per game. Overall, the Canadiens shorthanded unit would have been just average were it not for Price and Alex Auld, who combined for a .905 PK save percentage. That's a dangerous game to play and one that usually catches up with you sooner or later.

Advantage: Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Power Play vs. Boston Penalty Kill

Montreal Canadiens Power Play: +5.6 GVT (Rank: 7th in NHL)
Boston Bruins Penalty Kill: +6.5 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Total: Montreal Canadiens, -0.9 GVT

The power play is where Montreal's small forwards shine. Over the last two seasons, they have averaged a goal differential of +6.79 per 60 minutes on the power play, third in the NHL behind only powerhouses Vancouver and San Jose. Instead of a single world-beating unit, they get contributions from all their scorers like Cammalleri, Plekanec and even Scott Gomez, as well as their puck-moving defensemen Subban, Hamrlik and Wisniewski. They should be careful, however: they are the worst team in the NHL as taking a penalty once they are already on the man-advantage, a mistake they made 25 times this season.

Boston's penalty kill is fairly average, but the (literally) biggest presence is Chara: when he is on the ice, the Bruins manage to cut down on chances on their goaltender.

Advantage: Even

Injuries and Intangibles

How to mention this series without talking about the Chara-Pacioretty hit? The controversial hit has taken a rivalry that was not lacking in bitterness and has fired it up further. Anecdotal data from Facebook tells me that, while Montreal fans truly believe Chara should be locked up in jail (or worse!), Boston fans see it as an unfortunate accident that has been whipped out of proportion by Montreal media and an impressionable fan base. The truth is probably somewhere in between: while Chara's hit was undoubtedly dangerous and should have warranted a mild suspension, there is no way he was planning on hurting Pacioretty in the way he did. The incident will serve as fuel for the fire for both teams and their fans.

When these teams last met in 2009, the Bruins eliminated the Canadiens in four short games, outscoring them 17-6; however, since the Canadiens have turned over more than half of their personnel since then, I doubt that bitterness will be too lingering. Expect both arenas to burst your eardrums, although in Montreal and Boston that would have been the case regardless.

Advantage: Even

Prediction

At first glance, the Bruins only led the Canadiens by 7 points in the standings, hardly a dominant margin. On second glance, they led the East in goal differential with +55 to only +7 for the Canadiens, a statistic that is usually more powerful than win-loss record at explaining future success. At third glance, we can see that both teams are about even in puck possession metrics, which persist more than percentages. So which of these comparisons is the right one? I believe the second and third give you a better idea of what to expect from these teams. Despite the 3-6 seeding, these teams are more evenly balanced than you would imagine and should divide control of the play. But despite the heroics of Carey Price, Boston maintains the advantage in nets. Whether through the skill of their goaltenders or the style of defense that they play, Boston has now had the league's highest team save percentage for three seasons in a row. We have moved beyond the territory of fluke to the land of real and persistent talent.

It's hard to find reasons why Boston should win this series conclusively, but it's impossible to find any why the Canadiens should dominate. The best form of revenge for the Canadiens for the Pacioretty hit would be to knock the Bruins from the playoffs, but I believe they will need to wait another year.

Boston Bruins in 7 games

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

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Premium Article NHL Playoffs, First Ro... (04/14)
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NHL Playoffs, First Ro... (04/09)
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Howe and Why (04/15)

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