Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien thinks that Carey Price will be his club's best player come postseason time. He better hope, then, that his netminder has things figured out before the start of Round 1.
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 after missing out for the first time in five years a season ago.
"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."
Therrien is right not to put too much stock into his goaltender's recent struggles. After all, the Habs were still able to clinch their first Northeast Division title since 2008. Montreal pulled a point ahead of the Boston Bruins after winning its final two games, then held on to first place and the second seed in the East after the Bruins lost to the Ottawa Senators in Sunday's regular-season finale.
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.
Montreal did not have a 20-goal scorer, but did see eight players net at least 10. Max Pacioretty and rookie Brendan Gallagher led the way with 15 goals each and the scrappy Pacioretty also notched a team-high 39 points.
Forward Michael Ryder actually scored the most points by a Habs player this year, but six of his 16 goals in the campaign came with the Dallas Stars before he was dealt to the Canadiens. The move paid off and he brings 70 games and 43 points worth of playoff experience to Montreal.
Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec, who both had 14 goals in the regular season, also add depth and experience, while winger Brandon Prust's muscle and grit on the ice were far more valuable to the club than his 14 points.
There is some concern with the defense, which hasn't been the same since cruncher 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 blue line.
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.
OTTAWA SENATORS (7th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 25-17-6
2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated by NY Rangers 4-3 in conference quarterfinals
No one can say that the Ottawa 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.
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 in the Eastern Conference with a regular season-closing win over the Boston 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. He had a 2.01 GAA and .933 save percentage over that series, one in which five of the seven games were decided by a single goal.
While Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar, who finished second on the club with 27 points and with a team-leading 24 assists, push the offense from the blue line, the likes of Patrick Wiercioch, Chris Phillips and Marc Methot control things in the defensive end.
The ability of the defense to lead the break out is big seeing as the Senators had just three players reach double digits in scoring. And only Alfredsson (10 goals, 16 assists) has significant playoff experience with 47 goals and 90 points in 111 games.
The other two, Kyle Turris and Jakob Silfverberg, have combined for just 13 playoff games. Turris did lead the Senators with 12 goals, while Silfverberg had 10.
Gonchar also has a ton of playoff experience with 84 points in 125 games.
There wasn't much scoring after that, but the Sens will hope that skaters such as Mika Zibanejad, Colin Greening and Cory Conacher, acquired at the trade deadline from Tampa Bay, can break out this postseason.
Michalek is the x-factor. He had just four goals and 14 points through 23 games while battling injury after putting home a career-high 35 goals in 77 games a season ago.
This marks the first ever playoff meeting between the Senators and Canadiens and the clubs were an even split during the regular season. Both won their two games at home and finished the series with 2-1-1 records.
Senators head coach Paul MacLean thinks this will be a special series between the two Canadian clubs.
"It's the Montreal Canadiens. I think it's way different than the New York Rangers (the series from last season). I think it's going to be exciting and I think it's a great opportunity for our franchise and our organization to be able to play one of the most storied franchises in the league," noted MacLean.
Subban, Pacioretty and Markov all had three points versus the Senators this season, while Ottawa was paced in the series by Alfredsson and Zibanejad's two goals each. Chris Neil and 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.
Despite those outstanding numbers, the Canadiens seem ripe for the picking here and the Senators have shown they don't quit. Their excellent defense should frustrate the Habs into an early exit.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Senators in 7