A pair of Northeast Division rivals will meet for the first time in the postseason, as the Montreal Canadiens host the Ottawa Senators Thursday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The second-seeded Canadiens won their first Northeast crown since 2008 and finished seven points ahead of Ottawa, which placed fourth in the division.
The Habs hope their home-ice edge can be a positive factor for them in this best-of-seven set, as Montreal was 14-7-3 at Bell Centre this season while the Senators posted a sub-par 10-11-3 mark on the road.
The Senators and Canadiens split four meetings during the regular season. Both clubs won their two games at home and finished the series with 2-1-1 records.
Montreal pulled a point ahead of the Boston Bruins after winning its final two games of the season, then held on to first place and the second seed in the East after the Bruins lost to the Senators in Sunday's regular-season finale. The Habs are in the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons after missing the tournament last spring.
Though void of a big-name offensive star such as Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or Rick Nash, the Canadiens still managed to tie for fourth in the NHL with 3.04 goals per game and had the fifth-best power play unit at 20.7 percent. That was due to contributions across the board from a deep roster.
However, Habs goaltender Carey Price struggled down the stretch, losing six of seven decisions from April 9-23 while posting a 4.60 goals against average and .847 save percentage over that span. He was sharp in his final start of the regular season, making 23 saves on 25 shots faced in last Thursday's win over the Winnipeg Jets.
The 25-year-old finished the campaign at 21-13-4 with a 2.59 GAA, but his .905 save percentage matched a career worst and his career playoff numbers are far from impressive. Price has gone 8-15 in the second season with a 2.84 GAA.
Therrien, though, isn't worried about his goaltender ahead of Montreal's return to the playoffs.
"I really liked the way he played his last two games," said Therrien. "I saw the Carey Price that we know where he's capable to play. His confidence is there, his work ethic is there, his concentration is there, so I've got no doubt about Carey Price. He's our best player and I believe he's going to be our best player when we get to the playoffs."
There also is some concern with the defense, which hasn't been the same since physical blueliner Alexei Emelin was lost for the season on April 6 due to a torn ACL in his right knee. It will be up to Josh Gorges and Raphael Diaz to play the role of bruisers while defensemen P.K. Subban (11 goals, 27 assists) and Andrei Markov (10G, 20A) chip in with offense from the back end.
Overall, Montreal ranked 14th with 2.58 goals allowed per game and it killed off penalties at just a 79.8-percent rate to come in 23rd in the NHL. Those numbers will have to be better if the club is to take home its first championship since 1993.
No one can say that the seventh-seeded Senators didn't earn their second straight trip to the postseason. Whether they have enough left in the tank to take a serious run at the franchise's first ever Stanley Cup is another thing.
The Senators lost well over 200 man-games to injury this season, including absences by some big names.
Star center Jason Spezza hasn't played since the fifth game of the season due to back surgery and it's unlikely he'll suit up for the playoffs. However, that won't be the case for the rest of the walking wounded.
Ottawa survived a 31-game absence by star defender and reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson from a 70-percent tear of his Achilles tendon on Feb. 13 (an injury that was supposed to keep him out 4-to-6 months) and a string of 18 straight missed by No. 1 goaltender Craig Anderson from Feb. 23-April 2 due to an ankle injury.
Forward Milan Michalek missed 25-of-27 games over a two-month span beginning in mid February due to a knee issue and defenseman Jared Cowen sat out the first 41 games of this 48-game shortened campaign due to a left hip ailment.
But that didn't stop the Senators from jumping into the seventh seed with the regular season-closing win over the Bruins.
"I just like the resilience of this group. It seems like when we're backed into a corner, we respond every time," said Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson. "We feel as a team, when we play good we can play against anybody. We respect Montreal but we're going to go in there and play our game and give them everything we have and see what happens."
And now with an almost healthy roster, the Senators could be major sleepers for the upcoming playoffs. That's because of a solid defensive effort and just enough offense, the kind of hockey that can often thrive in the postseason. Ottawa finished behind only the President's Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks with 2.08 goals allowed per game and has the league's top penalty-killing unit at 88.0 percent.
That starts with goaltender Craig Anderson, who was a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy before suffering his ankle injury. He still posted solid numbers over 24 starts, going 12-9-2 with a 1.69 goals against average and .941 save percentage.
And Anderson has impressed in the playoffs before. He has notched a 2.29 GAA across 13 postseason games and helped the eighth-seeded Senators push the New York Rangers to seven games in last year's conference quarterfinals before eventually coming up short.
Subban, Markov and Max Pacioretty all had three points versus the Senators this season, while Ottawa was paced in the series by Alfredsson and Mika Zibanejad's two goals each. Chris Neil and Patrick Wiercioch both had a goal and two assists in the four games.
Anderson appeared in two of the meetings and split the decisions while allowing only three goals with a 1.51 GAA. He is just 5-6-1 with a 2.82 GAA lifetime versus the Habs.
Price went 2-0-1 versus the Senators this season with a 1.57 GAA and is 14-5-3 lifetime against them with a 2.11 GAA and three shutouts.
Game 2 of the series is set for Saturday in Montreal.