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Let the games begin

It's time. Tonight, as the puck drops, your Montreal Canadiens will be facing off against the Boston Bruins in the first round of 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.  The quest for the cup has returned to the city.  It will be the 33rd time that the Canadiens will face the Bruins in the post-season, out of the 78 times the team had made a playoff appearance.  That is by far the record for the number of playoff series between the same teams, a storied rivalry.

The two teams played 32 times before this year's playoff edition against each other and the Habs have a clear edge.  The first series ever played between the two teams was in 1929, Boston won that one, but Montreal followed that up with a win of their own in 1930.  Overall, the Habs hold a 24-8 winning record against the Boston Bruins.  Between 1943 and 1987, Montreal eliminated the Bruins 18 times in a  row! The best Boston could do was four series victories in the early 1990s.  Since 2002, the teams have met four times which Montreal won three times with Boston getting the most recent win in 2009 but subsequently lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in a seven game Eastern Conference semifinals.

While the regular season is somewhat meaningless at this point and serves only for the teams to build their strengths and handle their weak points for the playoffs, the Habs did manage to beat the bruins four times out of their six encounters.  What can't be ignored is the fact that Boston won both of their games with conviction, a score of 8-6 and a score of 7-0, both coming at the home turf.  The rivalry between these teams is as bitter as ever, with the Chara-Pacioretty incident and the number of penalty minutes in the six games reaching 334, with 180+ coming from that one 8-6 debacle in Boston along with the insensitive comments made by veteran Mark Recchi.  The teams just don't like each other.  To sum up the feelings, which seem to be mutual, lets quote Milan Lucic who said: "[The Habs are] definitely a team that we hate and a team the city hates".  

In the regular season, Montreal was led offensively by Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty when it came to the Bruins.  With Pacioretty out of the lineup, Gionta and Gomez will have to bring their best foot forward.  The diminutive captain managed to score 5 times in 6 games against the Bruins while Gomez accumulated 5 points as well (2G-3A).  Scott Gomez needs a special mention in this preview.  He has managed to accumulate 59 points in his last 61 playoff games. A surprising number, if one looks at the horrible season Gomez is coming out of.  Gomez, who was perplexed by his sub-par performance in the regular season, definitely understands the pressure of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and it remains to be seen if he can turn his machine on this year as well.  A lot rides on that.  When Gomez is playing good, he makes his wingers look good and justifies the time on ice that Coach Martin loves to bestow on him.  When he is playing bad, not only do his linemates struggle, he also takes valuable time away from other younger players who do play good. For Montreal, Scott Gomez will be a big part of the puzzle, for Boston, the hopes will be that Gomez continues to play the way he did in the regular season.

Let's not forget Michael Cammalleri who has 1G-2A against the Bruins this season.  If Cammalleri can continue on his recent hot streak, all should be well for the Habs as Carey Price can take care of the business between the pipes.  Price, who played 6 games against the Bruins, winning four of them, has been a pillar of strength for the team this year.  Although his numbers against the Bruins are not that great this year, considering he had two bad outings against them, he still remains the one riddle that the Bruins must solve.  They will be accomplishing that with Lucic, Horton and Krejci, crashing Price's space every chance they get.  But before we talk about the big line for the Bruins, here are Price's career stats against the Bruins:  19 GP - 13W-4L-2OTL, 2.72GAA and a .915SV% - not bad at all!

Now on to the Boston offensive lineup.  Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton have been great this season for Boston.  This is where the Habs will need to keep a keen awareness on the ice, as to where are the three guys, most probably, they will always be in front of Carey Price, nagging him as much as they can.  All three of them together have scored 69 goals for the Bruins this year.  They have accumulated 23 points against the Habs this season and 18 of these points have come from the two games the Bruins won in Boston.  Lucic has managed to accumulate 9 points this season against the Habs (4G-5A), while Horton, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have all managed to get 7 points each.  No doubt the Bruins were busy offensively against the Habs, but keep in mind that they managed to score 1, 2, 3, 1 goal in the four games they lost as well.  

While offensively they are secure, defensively they do have a thin lineup with only Zdeno Chara standing out in the crowd.  Kaberle has not been what the Bruins may have expected and has not provided any punch to the B's powerplay, that went 3 for 24 against the Habs this season.  However, what they do have is Tim Thomas, who might as well be the Vezina trophy winner this year with an astounding .940SV%!  Against the Habs however, Thomas didn't fare that well, apart for that one final shutout, he allowed 13 goals on 140 shots this season and lost 2 of the four games he played.  His career against the Habs saw him play 29 games, 10 wins, 14 losses and 4 over time losses with a GAA of 3.05 and a SV% of .906.  While Thomas is good, no doubt, no questions, he might not be the best against the Montreal Canadiens.  

Special units will play a big role in the playoffs and Montreal clearly has an advantage in this section.  In 28 powerplay opportunities, the Habs have scored 9 times while the Bruins have scored 3 times out of the 24 they received.  If Montreal can capitalize on the penalties the Bruins may take (after all, this is the playoffs, don't expect many penalties to be handed out), they can get a distinct advantage over the Bruins.

Finally, injuries report:  Max Pacioretty will not return in this series, that's been said and done.  Despite his speedy recovery, Pacioretty will be dearly missed by the Habs fans.  Jeff Halpern may return at some time and did make the trip with the team, but dont' expect to see him in the first game.  No word was given on Alex Picard but expect him to be on the sidelines along with Yannick Weber.  Tom Pyatt may also be left on the side as Ryan White's physical game play may end up being an asset for the Habs in this series.

The puck drops tonight in Boston at 7:00 PM EST and the game will be televised on CBC and RDS for the Montreal fans.  Let the games begin.

Read our team's first round predictions: The Road To Lord Stanley ; First Round Predictions ; Habs or Bruins

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