What a difference a single year makes. Last season the Montreal Canadiens finished atop the Eastern Conference standings, and the Boston Bruins had just squeaked into the playoffs, snagging the 8th spot. Montreal had dominated the Bruins all year, and fans and media alike were predicting a quick sweep by the Habs. Well, the Bruins surprised everyone. Rookie Milan Lucic led the way, hitting everything in sight and scoring clutch goals, eliciting comparisons to Cam Neely as he dominated the offensive zone. Montreal managed to win the series, but in a nail-biting 7 games, a far cry from the easy coast through the first round everyone was predicting. The grueling series took its toll on the Habs, who bowed out in 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the next round.
This season the roles are reversed. Boston has been the surprise of the league, and has led the Eastern Conference standings almost wire to wire, while the Habs have struggled since the midway point of the season, and didn't secure the 8th and final playoff spot until game 81 of the season. The Bruins have dominated the season series, much like the Canadiens did a year ago, winning 5 of the 6 meetings between the clubs. Now sophomore Milan Lucic has again been front and center in the heated rivalry, and his lopsided fight with Mike Komisarek back in November is pointed at as the turning point in the Habs' season.
The Bruins improvement has been nothing short of miraculous. Sure, they were expected to improve this year with plenty of young talent on their roster, but no one predicted they would finish this season with a whopping 116 points, just one shy of the 117 San Jose earned to nab the President's Trophy. Several Bruins players had breakout seasons, led by goaltender Tim Thomas, who led the NHL is both goals against average and save percentage, and is one of the favorites to capture the Vezina Trophy this year. 3rd year player Phil Kessel finally lived up to the potential that caused the Bruins to draft him 5th overall in the 2006 NHL entry draft, finishing with a team-leading 36 goals, despite only playing 70 games. Sophomore David Krejci was even more of a surprise, finishing his 2nd NHL season with 73 points and a league-leading +37 rating. Krejci showed superstar potential this season, scoring several highlight reel goals along the way. Rookie Blake Wheeler completes the trifecta. Wheeler finished his inaugural campaign with a respectable 45 points and an incredible +36 rating, second in the league behind only Krejci. With these 3 great young players, along with Lucic the future looks bright indeed for the Bruins.
However, no matter how talented a team is you don't win in the playoffs without grit, leadership and experience, and captain Zdeno Chara has plenty of those 3 qualities. The towering rearguard had another outstanding season, and will get his fair share of votes for the Norris Trophy. Chara is going to be an absolute nightmare for the small Habs forwards to contend with, with his punishing physical play and incredible reach. He can also punish the Canadiens on the powerplay with his booming slapshot, and the mere threat of that point shot really opens up the down-low play so the crafty Marc Savard can work his magic. Look for Chara, more than any other player, to be the key to the series for the Bruins.
There is significantly less for Habs fans to be excited about heading into this series. They have limped their way through the second half of the NHL season, and for a while there it didn't even look like this storied franchise would make the playoffs in the year they are celebrating their 100th season. In a desperate attempt to right the ship GM Bob Gainey fired coach Guy Carbonneau and stepped behind the bench himself. However, the Habs haven't fared much better since Gainey took over, and never did have that honeymoon phase that teams often enjoy when a new boss steps behind the bench. To make matters worse for the Habs they lost their #1 defenseman, and 2nd leading scorer when Andrei Markov was injured in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs last weekend. Markov gets it done at both ends of the ice for the Habs and is the key element in their 5 on 5 breakout as well as their quarterback on the powerplay.
The very fact that Markov finished 2nd in team scoring is another cause for concern. He finished only a single point behind teammate Alexei Kovalev, who led the team with a paltry 65 points. The team is going to need to find some scoring touch if they are going to have a hope against the powerful Bruins offense. One bright spot has been the play of Kovalev, Koivu and Tanguay as a line. Ever since Gainey put the trio together the line has been arguably the hottest in the league, torching opposing teams on a nightly basis. However, though the trio have found instant chemistry, putting them together has left the Canadiens other 3 lines with some serious depth issues, and the team's 2nd line, centered by Tomas Plekanec has yet to find any spark.
Another bright spot for the Habs has been the recent resurgence of goaltender Carey Price. Just a few short weeks ago Carey Price looked headed for a breakdown. He was playing with no confidence and was fighting the puck on even the simplest of shots. During the stretch drive though he has finally found some of the swagger that made him so great in his rookie year, and his spectacular play is the main reason his Habs managed to eke their way into the playoffs. Price will most certainly be the wild card in this series. If he can avoid cracking under the pressure, and play like he has the last few games of the regular season he will at least give the Habs a hope in this series.
That being said, a Habs victory has to be considered a longshot at best. The Bruins are better than the Habs at every single position right now, and the gaping hole left by the Markov injury is impossible to plug. This is one of the most bitter rivalries in professional sports though, so don't expect the Canadiens to just roll over and give the series to the Bruins. Every inch of ice will be hotly contested, and there will be lots of bumps and bruises on both sides when this one is over.