A year after starting the season on top, only to fall so far out of a playoff spot, the Montreal Canadiens are as hungry as ever to chase their 25th Stanley Cup.
A new coach, a new star defencemen, a revamped forward lineup and one of the best goalies in the league brings new optimism to fans who have begged for changes in recent years.
On Wednesday, the Canadiens will begin their playoff run against the New York Rangers, a team that has had as much of an up-and-down campaign as you can possibly have.
What is worth keeping an eye on in this series this time around? Let’s take a look, shall we?
1. Revenge factor
In 2014, the Rangers beat the Habs in six games to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1994.
It was a bitter, violent end for the Canadiens and their fans. In Game 1, Carey Price was injured after Chris Kreider fell into the star goaltender and taking him out of the series as a result.
Dustin Tokarski was forced to take over between the pipes, eventually losing out to Henrik Lundqvist in the six-game series.
This year, Montreal wants to reverse the result. The Canadiens swept the three-game season series this year, but two of the wins, including a 3-2 shootout victory in February, were one-goal decisions.
2. Price can outperform Lundqvist
Ask anyone to name the two best goaltenders from the past five years. If you aren’t told Price and Lundqvist, I’d be very surprised.
Despite both of them being at the top of the hockey world for years, neither Price nor Lundqvist have actually won a Stanley Cup.
While both goalies have had seasons slightly below their personal averages, they are still two of the best at what they do. Price has revitalized his season since the Habs hired Claude Julien in February and that could come at a good time for the Canadiens.
Lundqvist will need to turn things around, on the other hand. While he did take his starting position back from Antti Raanta as the season went on after battling a hip injury, he still finished with some of his worst stats to date.
Not many people are expecting the Rangers to win the series, but if they do, Lundqvist will have to be at the top of his game every time he hits the ice, just like he did in 2014.
3. Galchenyuk can return to form
Pacioretty – Danault – Radulov
Byron – Plekanec – Gallagher
— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) April 10, 2017
At one point in the season, Alex Galchenyuk was top-five in scoring in the entire NHL. But after returning from a knee injury back in February, the American scoring star has really struggled under the reigns of Claude Julien.
Down the stretch, Galchenyuk played on the third line, getting around 11 minutes of playing time a night. It was a big downgrade from the top-six position that he started with, but with four points in the final 10 games, he didn’t do much to improve his stock with the team.
Gally did record his fifth OT winning goal of the season in the final game of the season, tying him for the most in a single campaign in NHL history with Jonathan Toews and Steven Stamkos.
While that’s a good way to end the season, Galchenyuk was on the fourth line at practice on Monday, which makes you wonder what’s going on between him and Julien.
Nonetheless, if Galchenyuk can get his production together, watch out New York. He’s too good to be held back.
4. Weber is rested
— AHL (@TheAHL) March 30, 2017
Shea Weber is a rough and tumble defenceman that puts a lot of wear on his body. In fact, he missed the Canadiens’ final four regular season games to rest some nagging injuries. But that time off could have been a tremendous asset for the 31-year-old top pairing defenceman who simply needed a bit of time off.
While he wasn’t the offensive dynamo from the point some people were hoping for, Weber did do something that he doesn’t get enough credit for: play solid defence. On the ice for just 29 goals against in 5-on-5 play this season had him ranked second best in goals against by defencemen that played at least 1000 minutes in the NHL this season.
If the Habs ever needed Weber to be a leader, it’s now. Let’s just hope his short rest before the playoffs can be beneficial.
5. The Julien effect
After taking over as bench boss at mid-season, fans were hoping to see some renewed success at the Bell Centre.
After years of disappointment under Michel Therrien, there’s excitement to see where Julien can lead the squad this year. The Canadiens have been better under Julien this season, going 16-7-1 since the coaching change.
Can Julien out-duel Rangers coach Alain Vigneault as he did with Boston in 2011? If the answer is yes, the Habs will win this series.