The Montreal Canadiens ended the 2014-2015 NHL regular season 1st in the Atlantic Division and 2nd in the entire league, posting their best record since the 1988-1989 season.
Led by Max "American Sniper" Pacioretty, P.K. "Norris" Subban, and Carey "Jesus" Price, this year's Habs have a real shot at winning NHL's holiest of grails: the Stanley Cup.
"They don't hang conference banners from the rafters here, they raise Stanley Cup banners" - Carey Price.
1. Carey Price carries on his historic season
Leading all goalies in save percentage (.933), goals against average (1.96), wins (a franchise record 44), not to mention his 9 shutouts (2nd in the league), Carey Price's season was one for the ages. Not only has he already won the William Jennings Trophy (given to the goalie whose team allows the fewest goals during the regular season), he's the favourite to win both the Vezina Trophy (awarded to the best goaltender during the regular season), and become only the eighth goalie in NHL history to win the Hart Trophy (awarded to the most valuable player during the regular season). The Habs will only go as far as Price takes them.
2. Montreal continues to play excellent team defense
Led by defensive stalwarts P.K. Subban and Andrei “The General” Markov and backed by the impenetrable Price, the Habs allowed only 189 goals all season (tied for 1st with NHL powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks, Price shared the William Jennings Trophy with Chicago's goalie Corey Crawford). With the addition of Jeff Petry during the NHL trade deadline and the emergence of young defensemen such Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn, the Montreal Canadiens will be going into the playoffs with excellent depth on their blueline. Coach Michel Therrien preaches a defense-first system, in fact, Montreal's top goalscorer also happens to be one of their best defensive forwards (a guy by the name of Max Pacioretty who scored 37 goals while leading the league with a plus/minus rating of +38).
3. Unsung heroes provide timely offense
There are players who get you to the playoffs and then there are players who get you through the playoffs. Thus, the likes of Dale “Dutch Gretzky” Weise, Lars Eller, P.A. Parenteau, Devante Smith-Pelley will be relied upon to provide an offensive spark and help Max Pacioretty in the goal-scoring department. The Habs scored a total of only 214 goals all season, ranking 20th in the league (lowest among all playoff teams), so they'll need every bit of offense they could muster this post-season.
4. The “Gallys” step up
The youth movement on the Montreal Canadiens is highlighted by Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. Fans know exactly what to expect from the former: a relentless player who'll crash the net, take abuse while fearlessly standing in front of the goalie (as P.K. Subban winds up for his 100 mph slapshots), and score goals from the dirty areas. Alex Galchenyuk's case is different however; a 20-goal season sounds great for a 21-year old and yet there are many fans (including yours truly) who are expecting so much more from the supremely talented player affectionately known as “Chucky.” In short, Galchenyuk is the second-most talented forward on this team behind only Max Pacioretty and if he takes his game to another level this post-season by using his size, stickhandling ability, laser shot, and hockey I.Q., the Habs will have two dangerous top lines line capable of scoring at any given moment.
5. The Habs profit from home-ice advantage
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and the love Montrealers share for their beloved Canadiens. By finishing second in the league behind only the New York Rangers, the Habs have secured home-ice advantage for the remainder of the playoffs (unless they play the Rangers of course). That's good news because the energy of the crowd at the Bell Centre come playoff-time is nothing short of electrifying (thanks to wonderful fans such as yourselves dear readers). Home-ice advantage also affords coach Therrien and co. the last line change allowing for more favourable matchups (for example, Montreal's first line can jump on the ice to take advantage of the opponent's weaker third line).
Photo cred - The Globe and Mail
6. The coaching staff adjusts accordingly
There are many valid criticisms of Michel Therrien: his constant line juggling, his stubborn persistence on playing a so-called grinding game that involves chipping the puck into the offensive zone instead of carrying it in, and his lack of accountability towards certain players. Yet, it's also important to note that since coming back to coach this team the Habs have had back-to-back 100+ point seasons (on top of a 63 point season during the lockout-shortened year), essentially posting one of the best records in the NHL over the span of three years. As was the case last year, if Therrien allows his players (most notably Subban) to take more risks offensively during the playoffs, while urging them to maintain their sound defensive game, the Habs will be able to match up against any team. However, perhaps the quickest way to encourage more goal-scoring is to adjust the powerplay by giving ice-time to more deserving players, which bring us to our next point.
7. The powerplay springs to life
Believe it or not, once upon a time, your Montreal Canadiens boasted one of the best powerplays in the league, thanks to Andrei Markov dishing the puck like a wizard, P.K. Subban's cannon of a shot, and creative puck movement among all players. Today, the Habs are ranked 23rd on the powerplay (second-lowest among all playoff teams). While Subban and Markov remain the biggest threat on the Habs powerplay, most of the forwards (most notably David Desharnais) have yet to contribute as much. Given the fact that the Habs have a brick wall in net disguised as a guy named Carey Price, I would argue that the difference between winning and losing any given game this post-season could boil down to their powerplay.
8. The leadership core continues to properly guide the team
For the first time since 2009-2010 the Montreal captaincy has been left vacant. However, from the above-mentioned likes of Markov, Subban, Pacioretty, and Price, to veterans such as Brandon Prust, Tomas Plekanec, Manny Malhotra, to even youngsters such as Gallagher who would skate through a brick wall (no, not Carey Price) if it meant helping his team win, Les Habitants have an abundance of leadership. This post-season will likely serve as an audition for both Pacioretty and Subban in regard to next year's captaincy, so don't be surprised if there's some friendly internal competition between the two. How does one display leadership you ask? Well that brings us to our next reason.
Photo cred - CBS Sports
9. P.K. Subban goes beast mode in the playoffs (again)
Imagine you're P.K. Subban. It's 2014. Game 1. You've just scored two goals (including the game-winner in overtime) against your biggest rival the Boston Bruins (who missed the playoffs this season by the way, cue laughter and applause). You wake up the next morning to find that a few Bruins fans have targeted terribly racist remarks towards you on Twitter. So what do you say to the media the next day? You praise both the city of Boston and Bruins fans while disassociating the racists away from the organization. Now fast forward to Game 7. You're back in Boston for the deciding game after single-handedly dominating the series. So what do you say to the media this time? "I can't wait for the crowd, the noise, the energy in the building. I can't wait to take that all away from them." On top of scoring 30 points in 40 career playoff games, P.K. Subban is coming off of a career-best season this year (15 goals, 45 assists, 60 points). In essence, he's the last player Habs fans should worry about.
10. Max Pacioretty returns from injury and leads the team in goals
In addition to having the best goalie in the world and one of the best defensemen in the league, the Ghosts of the Old Forum have blessed us with a top 5 goal-scorer who doesn't discard defense like Phil Kessel discards vegetables (and defense). In short, Max Pacioretty has become the complete package: a major goal scoring threat who in turn limits the opposition from scoring goals better than almost any forward, all the while facing the toughest matchups night in and night out. Oh, and he's scored 10 game-winning goals this season (2nd in the league to Alex Ovechkin). If Pacioretty's Wolverine-like healing abilities are any indication, he'll be on the starting lineup come Wednesday at the Bell Centre listening to Ginette Reno belt out Oh Canada (in case you haven't heard, Ginette will be back for the playoffs.)