Thursday, April 10, 2008

Round 1: Montreal - Boston

Habs Preview

Go to Topham's Bruins Preivew.

The Habs head into tonight's Game #1 as true contenders, not just for this series, but for the cup. Things have to line up right if we expect to be celebrating in mid-June and I believe that the first star has aligned for us with a Boston match-up. We have played extremely well against Boston over the last 6 years - that includes two 1st round playoff wins. Some of the players have changed, our coaches have changed, even our style has changed, but one thing that hasn't is that the Canadiens always rise up in the spring. The Habs have always been the best team at exceeding expectations in the playoffs, let's see if they can do it one more time.

Here is a look at the key players for Montreal in round 1. If these players play up to (or exceed) expectations then so will the team as a whole.

The Last Line - Carey Price - #31 G

Carey hasn't done much of anything but win since Christmas 2006. A World Junior gold medal coupled with a Calder Cup championship will prove to be invaluable this year as nothing can substitute winning. It should also be mentioned that during the 2006-2007 season he was named CHL Goalie of the year, World Junior MVP and Calder Cup MVP. He has certainly earned the right to be playing in the NHL, on this stage, at such a young age.

As for his play in the NHL he has been stellar, especially since the trade of our former #1 Cristobal Huet. His save % rose to .920 for the season which ranks 7th in the NHL which is very impressive for a rookie. Starting with a win against Boston on March 20th he has won 7 straight games. He ended the year as the NHL's 1st Star for the last week of play and was NHL Rookie of the Month for March. Against Boston this year he is 5-0-0 and has only allowed 11 goals.

Whether he is Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur is still yet to be determined, but I think what we can all be assured of is that he will give us solid play. Only 12 of his 39 decisions were regulation losses this year as he was 24-12-3. As the first place team we will need solid goaltending to go deep, but goaltending isn't our only chance to succeed. What Carey will do is wins games for us that should be won and keep us in close games. He will steal the odd game for the Habs this year, but it isn't something that we should bank on. The team will do it's best to relieve the kid of the immense pressure that the city and country is putting on him, but to be fair if there were one player that can handle it it's him.

The Game Maker - Andrei Markov - #79 D

Markov has been the leader on the Habs blue-line for a few seasons now, but what happened this year went beyond just our team. Andrei played in the All-Star game this year and was the top vote-getting defenceman. It seems that the rest of the league is realizing what we have known for years - Markov is special, an elite 2-way defenceman. There is no better D-Man in the East than Andrei right now. He will be called on a lot this series to lead a very experienced corps.

His stats show that he really can do it all. He played in all 82 games this year finishing with a very impressive 58 points (6th in the league). His 24:58 minutes of ice time was the 15th best average among NHL skaters this year and he played more hockey than all but 6 other NHLers. His play against Boston has been not much different than his play against the rest of the league - in 8 games he had 2 goals, 3 assists and was +5. He has been a model of consistency for us all year and can do well against any opposition.

He will be our number one shutdown D-man this series as he and Komisarek will see a lot of ice on the PK and against Boston's top 2 lines. Markov's responsibilities, however, won't stop there. We will need him to show the same play for us on the PP that he has shown all year. Without our Power-Play going we will be in tough, but I am sure the quarterback of the #1 unit in the league will bring what he has all year - goals. He is our most important piece in this series as his play is so dynamic. If he is on we will do well, if he struggles then you will see the whole team do the same. The good news is that his career and season have been nothing more than consistent - he knows how to get the job done.

The Game Breaker - Alexei Kovalev - #27 RW

Our most exciting and dynamic forward has been Alex all year. He played in all 82 Habs games of which I can count on one hand his weak performances. His 35 goals and 49 assists surprised many in the hockey world, including myself. What didn't surprise me, however, was his effort, his creativity and his leadership. Alex has always shown the aforementioned qualities, even last year. The difference this year was more trust from his coaches and fellow players and let's face it, better linemates. He wasn't asked to carry a disgruntled veteran this year (Samsonov), but instead was asked to lead 2 very eager young-guns.

His play against Boston has simply been spectacular. He has used his speed and that of his linemates to expose a very slow and weak Boston defence. He gets very tricky when he plays Boston as some of his best moves all year have been against the Bs. He missed goal/game status versus Boston by one as he notched 7 in 8 games, he also added 4 assists. Boston seem to be a team tailor made for Alex to play against. They give him more space than any other team does and he makes the most of that.

I think that we can count on a great performance every night from Alex this series. If there was going to be one night where he may not show up as much it may be game 3. Whenever the Habs play on back-to-back nights he generally fades in one of the games. This is, however, the playoffs so I wouldn't be surprised if we saw that trend disappear. The former Stanley Cup Champion (NYR - 1994) seems more excited than anyone about getting the job done this year. His father has made his first ever trip to Canada to see his son play. Alex had to convince the patriarch of his family to come, but now that he is here he is loving the atmosphere. Alex told him that this wasn't Pittsburgh or New York, that Montreal in the playoffs is something special - and, it really is. His father's presence will certainly help the sniper keep focused, but it is still great to see a player as excited as all of us about the atmosphere in Montreal from April onwards.

The Great Hope - Christopher Higgins - #21 LW

Christopher is a big question mark for the Habs this time around. In theory he should provide us with the secondary offence that we need, but I believe that is dependant on the play of his linemates. There is still a team wide search to figure out line 1A. Higgins has enjoyed so much success with Saku and Ryder that I am positive we will see that combination at some point in the near future. What we need though is Higgins to play at an elite level with or without those two. He wears an 'A' on his chest for a reason, I am hoping he can lead on the ice, no matter who he plays with.

His play as of late has been great - 6 goals in his last 9 games. In mid-March Carbo gave Chris a DVD showcasing his goals. That obviously helped Higgins re-discover what he was capable of and his play has really improved. What scares me a little is that a he is a player that at certain times seems to forget how to play his game. He goes through long stretches where he is no more than a spectator on the ice. The good news is that his playoff play 2 years ago was very solid and could have been even better had Koivu not been taken out - 4 points in 6 games.

We need 2 lines (at least) scoring goals in this series if we want to win. Begin, Smolinski and company have done a good job at chipping in lately, but they will have other roles to play, so I wouldn't bank on goals from them. Koivu will deliver when he is back, but until then Chris must give us this option. He is capable of great offensive play, both scoring and fore-checking. Unlike other Habs, however, his play against Boston hasn't been too spectacular (5 points in 8 games). He is tough though, he played in all 82 games, and despite ups and downs all year he has never given up. If he gets hot we will have no problems this round, if he doesn't Carbo will have to adjust fast.

Others to Watch

Saku Koivu - #11 C
Saku has always been a playoff warrior. In fact any tournament he plays in he is usually one of the top (if not the top) player. He will likely miss games 1, 2 and 3, but hopefully he will come back very soon after that. I can't count how many injuries and illnesses the poor guy has had over the years, but he always bounces back stronger than before. A small broken bone will not be enough to hold back our star centre and when he comes back you will notice his strong play. If he comes back, he will create goals and we shouldn't have a hard time reaching round 2.

Mike Komisarek - #8 D
Mike will be returning after missing 7 games due to a sore hip. The Habs played very well in his absence, but you can trust me when I say they would have played even better with him in. He has formed a great partnership with Marky all year and I am excited to see them reunited tonight. He has been our best defensive defenceman all season long, something that allows Andrei more offensive freedom. He will be tough this series, but the key for him is while being tough to stay out of the box. Most teams recognize that it is easy to rile Mike up. He will take stupid penalties from time to time and that will hurt the Habs is he does. If he stays out of the box and plays a simple game the rest of the team will take care of the rest. I predict Mike will shine in these playoffs and that the hockey world will hail him as a true defensive powerhouse as they have done with Reghr and Beauchemin in recent years.

Bryan Smolinski - #20 C
Bryan has been a different player since early March and is now looking like a very valuable acquisition. We picked him up for his veteran leadership, playoff experience and even his offensive play. Unlike his days in Ottawa, Chicago or LA he is now asked to be a defensive, 4th line player. I think it took Bryan a long time to accept his role, but since he has he has been a true force. There was a game in February against Florida in which he was used in OT on the PP with Saku and Kovy - we won that game with a goal generated from those 3 and I don't think he has looked back. He accepts his defensive role, but knowing that he had the coaches' confidence in key offensive situations helped Bryan to get his own confidence back. His 111 playoff games worth of experience will go a long way to help us this round. If he, Kostopoulos and Begin can play like they did down the stretch then we have nothing to worry about on our checking line.

Mark Streit - #32 D
Can the Habs biggest surprise player of the year (and possibly all time) keep it going now? I honestly believe that he will. He may only be in his third season in the NHL, but let's not forget he is 30 and has bags of experience. The best of all his experience may have come from the Torino Olympics where he captained his native Switzerland to an improbable victory over Team Canada. His skating and puck-handling will be key for the Habs in this series as will his play on the PP. Anytime Mark gets involved offensively I always see it as a bonus though. We have so many weapons that getting secondary defenceman scoring is awesome, but not crucial to our success. He will hopefully be teamed up with Hamrlik which will allow Mark to get involved in Boston's zone more. Hammer is a rock in his own end and, like Komisreak with Markov, his play will allow Streit to take more liberties with the puck.

Go to Topham's Bruins Preivew.

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