MONTREAL — Alexander Ovechkin and the powerhouse Washington Capitals will be the Montreal Canadiens’ opponent in the first round of NHL playoffs.
But that may not be such a bad thing for the Canadiens.
Despite a major gap in talent and a 33-point difference in the standings, the Canadiens went 2-1-1 against the Capitals this season, including a 6-5 overtime win in their last meeting on Feb. 10 in Montreal.
“We did well against the top teams in the East, so hopefully that works out,” forward Brian Gionta said on Saturday night, moments after Montreal slipped into a playoff spot on the point they gained on a regular season-ending 4-3 overtime loss to the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Capitals (54-15-13), the league’s highest-scoring team with 318 goals, won the President’s Trophy by finishing first overall in the 30-team NHL with 121 points.
The Canadiens (39-33-10) were bumped to eighth place on 88 points when the Philadelphia Flyers jumped up to seventh with a 2-1 shootout win over the New York Rangers on Sunday afternoon.
On paper, it looks like an easy first round for the Capitals, particularly as Montreal goes into the post-season winless in its last three regular season games.
But the two teams had four close battles during the season, with the Canadiens taking a 3-2 win in Washington on Nov. 20 and the Caps answering with a 4-3 shootout win at the Bell Centre on Nov. 28.
The Caps won 4-2 at home on Jan. 5, but Montreal got them back a month later.
Whatever their differences, coach Jacques Martin said all teams start with a clean slate in the post-season.
“It’s a new season — it doesn’t matter where you finish,” said Martin. “It’s new goals, new strategies. Everyone starts at the same level.”
Jaroslav Halak is expected to be the Canadiens starting goaltender in the playoffs, even if he struggled in the season finale against Leafs. But it is interesting to note that Price played all four games against Washington and had a winning record despite a so-so 3.39 goals against average and a .899 save percentage.
“Our goaltenders did the job for us all year,” said Martin. “Tonight was maybe not (Halak’s) best performance, but they got us into the playoffs.”
The Caps’ starting goalie, former Canadien Jose Theodore, played part of one game against his old team and came out with a 6.44 goals-against average.
Now the Canadiens hope they can pull of some upsets.
Defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron will remind his teammates of his 2005-06 season with the Edmonton Oilers, who finished eighth in the Western Conference but made it to the Stanley Cup final.
“Now we have the same record as the other teams and there is no reason we can’t go far,” said Bergeron. “It’s up to us to play our best.
“When I was with Edmonton, we were eighth and got to within one goal of the Stanley Cup.”
Centre Tomas Plekanec paced the Canadiens attack against Washington with four goals and an assist in four games, while Brooks Laich, Mike Green and Tomas Fleischmann each had five points against Montreal, while Eric Fehr had four goals and Ovechkin chipped in a goal and three assists.
The Canadiens were given the day off Sunday and will resume skating on Monday morning.
They go into the playoffs relatively healthy, missing checking centre Glen Metropolit and seventh defenceman Paul Mara to injuries.