The entire hockey world was hoping for a Habs vs Leafs first round matchup, but instead we'll get to see Montreal vs Ottawa. It may not have the history or bad blood that a Toronto series would've brought, but this is as compelling of a matchup that we'll find in round one. Let's take a closer look at the key factors.
Surprised? On paper, this should be a very close duel between Anderson and Price, but I'm going to focus on Price here because I think he is the make-or-break factor of the series. I know that's not ground-breaking analysis, but no one is quite sure what this guy is made of when the spotlight is on. He won a series in his rookie season, but nothing since then. He is often heralded as the best Canadian goaltender and praised as one of the elite. Can someone smarter than me explain how that happened? By my measure, I like to know what a guy can do in the playoffs before I declare him the best anything. Putting up nice regular season stats is nice for poolies, but I'm still not sure Price is the guy who can lead Montreal to glory.
The word from local reporters is that he wants to prove something to himself and his teammates this post-season, not the media or the fans. That might sound encouraging and a reflection of maturity, but to me that sounds like self-doubt. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ice Anderson is as cool as they come. The guy is in a great sitution right now. He led the league with a .941 save percentage and now gets to play the underdog role without any pressure. As the series unfolds, this could turn out to be the deciding factor.
When you analyze the lineups of these teams, there isn't a whole lot separating them. There is not a true "top line" on either club, but there are a lot of excellent 2nd lines. Ottawa misses Spezza, but they do have guys like Alfredsson, Michalek, and Turris. Smith, Neil, and Condra are quality bottom line players who can drive possession forward and play a sound defensive game. Then there is the dynamic kid line of Silfverberg, Zibanejad, and Conacher. I'm a huge fan of the first two, but I'm still not sold on Conacher. Down the stretch he was shifted off that line and given reduced minutes.
Montreal have their own kids to tout, too. Galchenyuk is a a future superstar and has given the Habs excellent production on limited minutes, and Gallagher is receiving attention for Calder consideration. I think Gallagher might have played over his head this year, but he's been a sparkplug for them all season. There are a lot of good two-way players that contribute such as Eller, Plekanec, Prust, and Gionta. Ryder, Desharnais, and Pacioretty round out a pretty balanced top nine.
On defense there isn't much separating these clubs either.
Montreal can put out Gorges and Diaz in defensive situations and allow Subban and Markov to lead the transition game. Bouillon isn't going to win any awards, but he's a quality role player who fits in this system well.
Ottawa have a similar dynamic. They throw out Methot, Cowen, and Phillips as shutdown types and have Karlsson and Gonchar to lead the offense. Wiercioch is getting a lot of praise from the media, but keep in mind he's played in a very protective role with a ton of offensize zone starts and against weak competition.
Looking at the advanced stats, Ottawa did pretty well with a 994 PDO and 52.05 possession rating. Given who they were missing for most of the year, you can't expect much better than that. Montreal finished with strong numbers too with a 1010 PDO and 53.63 possession rating.
Who gets the edge? Flip a coin.
One big factor I considered before making my prediction was the issue of home ice advantage and the pressure on these respective teams. Montreal is going to have a lot of fan support when they travel to Ottawa. They will also have the benefit of the Bell Centre, which is arguably the best environment to play a hockey game in the playoffs.
Yet, this support has a dark side. There will be huge expectations on Montreal to win this series because of their seeding. They will also carry a mountain of pressure on them because it's been so long since Montreal has had a deep playoff run. The only exception is 2010 when Halak made a miracle run.
Which side of the double-edged sword will cut deepest?
If Price has a strong start and is as good as people say he is, Montreal will win this series. However, I think the pressure will work against the Habs and Price will stumble. Ottawa has a deep belief in themselves and the additions of Cowen and Karlsson should put them over the top. When you add it all up, Ottawa are in a prime position for the upset. I like two bets here.
Prediction: Ottawa ML for the series (+130) & Ottawa +1 games for the series (-112).