(SportsNetwork.com) - Carey Price was so good between the pipes this season he is not only the prohibitive favorite to win the Vezina Trophy, but he also stands as the leading candidate for the Hart.
If he takes home the Hart Trophy, Price would be the first goaltender to win the MVP award since Montreal's Jose Theodore claimed it in 2002. However, when your goalie wins the Hart it doesn't necessarily bode well for the team as a whole.
Price was the main reason Montreal won the Atlantic Division title in 2014-15. He led the league in wins with a 44-16-6 record and also was tops in the NHL in save percentage (.933) and goals against average (1.96) while finishing second with nine shutouts.
While the Habs had the stingiest defense in the league with 2.24 goals allowed per game, the club ranked 20th in offense with an average of 2.61 goals scored per outing. It may have an even tougher time scoring now that Montreal could begin this series without its top offensive weapon.
Max Pacioretty hasn't played since sustaining an upper-body injury rumored to be a concussion on April 5 when he was hit by Florida's Dmitry Kulikov and tumbled awkwardly into the boards. Pacioretty, who led the Habs with 37 goals, 67 points and a plus-38 rating, sat out the final two games of the regular season and the big, speedy winger's status for the start of the opening round is uncertain. He did skate on Monday for the first time since suffering the injury, but has yet to be cleared for contact.
"One thing is certain, we'll take Max back when he's ready," head coach Michel Therrien told Montreal's website "It might be [for Game 1 on] Wednesday. It might be [for Game 2 on] Friday. It might even be [for Game 3 on] Sunday. We just don't know when it will be."
Besides Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec was the only other Montreal forward to reach 60 points this season. The 32-year-old Czech centerman was second on the team in goals (24) and points (60).
If Pacioretty is unavailable for even part of this series, the Habs need guys like Plekanec, David Desharnais, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher to pick up the scoring slack. Desharnais had 48 points (14G, 34A) in 2014-15, while Gallagher and Galchenyuk ranked third and fourth on the club with 24 and 20 goals, respectively.
Plekanec could center the top line with Galchenyuk and Gallagher as his wingers, leaving Desharnais in the middle between Pacioretty and right winger P.A. Parenteau. Devante Smith-Pelly may move into Pacioretty's left wing spot on the second line if he is unable to play.
Montreal's defensemen are capable of boosting the offense thanks to the presence of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov on the blue line. Subban compiled 60 points on 15 goals and 45 assists, tying the former Norris Trophy winner for second in scoring among NHL defensemen.
Subban is a key part of the Canadiens' power play, which ranked 23rd in the league this season with a pedestrian success rate of 16.5 percent. He led the club with eight goals on the man advantage, edging out Pacioretty and Plekanec, who each notched seven power-play goals.
Markov added 10 goals and 40 points from the blue line this season and helps form a strong top pairing for Montreal. Subban leads the team in ice time with 26 minutes, 12 seconds of action per game while Markov logged 24:54.
Alexei Emelin and Jeff Petry are the projected second pairing for the Habs, while Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn are expected to round out the defensive rotation.
Although the Canadiens are hoping Pacioretty can contribute in the first round, the club may be able to skate by without him for a short time. However, Montreal really needs Price to stay healthy to have a real chance of going deep in the playoffs. The club's No. 1 backstop was hurt in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals last spring, and although Dustin Tokarski played well in a pinch, he couldn't save the Habs from falling to the New York Rangers.
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 43-26-13 (1st Wild Card, East)
2014 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify
There's a few ways to look at the Ottawa Senators heading into the playoffs. It could the club's amazing surge to the postseason was the sign of things to come this spring, or the Sens may already be spent after putting everything on the line to make it this far.
Ottawa fired head coach Paul MacLean in early December and his replacement Dave Cameron did a masterful job keeping the club from falling apart before it forced its way into the postseason with a season-ending 21-3-3 run.
Of course, it was not Cameron but Andrew Hammond, who rightfully garnered the accolades for this season's march to the playoffs. The goaltender went from an unknown to a phenomenon known as the "Hamburglar" in the span of a few months.
Now, Hammond has to keep going strong for the Sens to have a real chance of pulling off an upset of the division champions in Round 1.
The 27-year-old Hammond might have been a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy if his age didn't disqualify him from the top rookie conversation. Still, he had never started a game at the NHL level until February and then went on to finish the regular season with a mind-boggling 20-1-2 record. Hammond also sported a 1.79 GAA and .941 save percentage during his 24-game run in 2014-15.
Hammond's only postseason experience as a professional came last spring at the AHL level when the Binghamton Senators were knocked out of the opening round. The "Hamburglar" struggled in that series and if the same thing happens against the Habs, Cameron can turn to Craig Anderson and his 23 games of NHL playoff experience.
Ottawa's leading scorer this season was defenseman Erik Karlsson. Like Subban, the 24-year-old Swede is a young blueliner who already has a Norris Trophy on his mantle. Both Karlsson, who posted 66 points on 21 goals and 45 assists in 82 games this season, and Subban could be in the running for another Norris in 2015.
Karlsson is used to a heavy workload as he averaged 27:15 in ice time this season. That was nearly five minutes more than his skating partner Marc Methot, who was second on Ottawa's blue line at 22:40. There was an even bigger drop-off after Karlsson when it came to offensive production from the back end, as Cody Ceci was second on the club with 21 points on five goals and 16 assists.
Ceci and Patrick Wiercioch expect to make up the second pairing for the Sens with Mark Borowiecki and Eric Gryba eating the rest of the minutes.
Mark Stone's phenomenal rookie season was lost in the shuffle thanks to Hammond's star turn and he also has taken a back seat in the Calder Trophy race thanks to the presence of bigger names. However, Stone tied Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau for the lead in points among first-year players with 64 and also matched Nashville's Filip Forsberg for second among rookies with 26 goals.
In addition to Stone, Ottawa also has another impressive rookie winger in Mike Hoffman, who led freshmen with 27 goals and also finished fourth in rookie scoring with 48 points.
Kyle Turris is the club's top centerman and did a fine job replacing the role left when Jason Spezza was traded to Dallas after the 2013-14 season. Turris had 24 goals and 40 assists while playing in all 82 games and is likely to center a top line with Stone on the right wing and Clarke MacArthur on the left. MacArthur posted 16 goals and 20 assists over 62 games in the regular season.
Bobby Ryan is the most recognizable face up front for Ottawa, but the former Anaheim Ducks sniper is coming off a down season. Ryan, 28, eclipsed the 30- goal mark in four straight seasons for Anaheim beginning in 2008-09, but he only has 41 goals in 148 games since joining the Senators in a trade after the 2012-13 campaign.
Unlike a few of Ottawa's difference makers up front, Ryan does boast playoff experience. He has 10 goals and five assists over 26 career postseason games with the Ducks.
Ryan is expected to play on the right side on the second line opposite Hoffman. Mika Zibanejad centers the line and the 21-year-old coming off a career season in 2014-15 when he posted personal bests in goals (20) and assists (26).
As a team, Ottawa ranked ninth in the NHL with 2.83 goals scored per game. The Sens were 13th in team defense with an average of 2.54 goals allowed.
Like Montreal, the Sens' power play was not a strong suit with Ottawa finishing just ahead of the Habs with a 16.8 percent success rate on the man advantage.
Ottawa has a great deal of momentum heading into this series after making an impressive run to the playoffs. Now, the Sens hope to keep riding that wave to a major upset of the Canadiens in the first round.
Pacioretty's cloudy status for the series definitely opens up the door for an Ottawa win. Even with No. 67 in the lineup, the Habs' offense did not make things easy for Price, who the club has relied too heavily on this season. The star goaltender likely will have to keep being the team's best player for Montreal to beat Ottawa.
Ottawa, on the other hand, is crossing its fingers and hoping Hammond doesn't fold under the pressure of his first playoff series. Considering his steady play is the main reason the Sens were able to get this far in the first place, they won't stand a chance against Montreal if he stumbles now.
After taking the opener of the 2014-15 season series on Dec. 20, the Canadiens struggled against Ottawa and lost the final three meetings of the regular season. The Sens' three wins all came by a margin of at least two goals. Hammond won the last two encounters and stopped 69-of-73 shots (.945 save percentage) to anchor those victories.
Pacioretty had four goals and two assists over the four games against the Sens, so his health could be a major factor in determining the outcome of this series.
This marks the second playoff meeting between the Habs and Sens. Ottawa won the previous postseason encounter in quick fashion, taking the 2013 conference quarterfinals matchup in five games. Montreal was a heavily-favored No. 2 seed heading into that series before getting knocked off by the seventh-seeded Senators.
Upsets are commonplace in the NHL playoffs but picking the right ones is never easy. However, this matchup looks like a favorable one for Ottawa and the timing could be right for the Sens to shock the Habs out of the playoffs.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Senators in 7