Commentary

First-round breakdown: B's vs. Habs

Updated: April 14, 2009, 7:04 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Ah, memories of the old Adams Division. The NHL dropped divisional playoffs in 1993, but lo and behold, these Original Six rivals meet for a fourth time in seven postseasons. The Canadiens have won the past three encounters (2002, 2004, 2008) and 24 of 31 playoff series between the two teams. It doesn't seem to matter where either club is in the standings, either; the top-seeded Bruins were stunned by the eighth-seeded Canadiens in 2002 and as the No. 2 seed in 2004.

All of which has some people in Beantown just a tad concerned despite their overwhelming statistical advantage this season and overall better squad in all areas. Mind you, the 1 versus 8 matchup isn't exactly David versus Goliath. Just last season, when the teams met in the first round of the playoffs, the seeds were reversed as Montreal hung on for a tough, seven-game series win.

The Eastern Conference remains a wide-open affair. Boston, however, won five of six encounters between the two teams during the regular season.

1. Andrei Markov. He's the No. 1 key, yet he may not even play. Out with a lower-body injury, it's unclear when the defenseman could return. His absence is a massive, massive loss for the Canadiens. Think Pittsburgh without Sergei Gonchar earlier this season, and you get the picture. Markov does it all for the Habs, leading the team in minutes played, controlling the tempo of the game, keying the transition game and, of course, playing a central part on special teams. Oh, and he was leading the team in scoring when he went down April 4. It's tough to see Montreal as being able to muster an upset unless he returns.

On the Bruins' side of things, defenseman Andrew Ference (undisclosed injury) may not start the series, while center Patrice Bergeron (undisclosed injury) is considered day-to-day and could be ready for Game 1.

2. Special teams. It might surprise many to find out that, despite the gigantic gap in points when it comes to the standings, Boston and Montreal are pretty closely matched up in special teams. The Bruins have the upper hand on the power play, but the Habs edge Boston on the penalty kill. And it's worth noting that ever since Mathieu Schneider arrived on the scene in February, Montreal's power play has really taken off. Just look at Thursday's game in Boston, where the Canadiens used three power-play goals (one by Schneider) to earn the point in the standings they needed to make the playoffs. There's not much to choose between the two clubs in special teams, and that's a fact worth remembering.

3. Five-on-five scoring. Here, it's no contest. The Bruins were the second-best team in the NHL in this department this season, a testimony to their balanced scoring and depth on all four forward lines. The Canadiens were middle of the pack in five-on-five scoring and haven't come close to matching Boston's balance up front. If the refs keep their whistles in their pockets, it should greatly advantage the Bruins.

4. Physical play. Another big edge to the Bruins. They're a big, mean squad that routinely pushed the Canadiens around in all six regular-season matchups. The Habs, well, they're just soft. Skilled, yes … but soft. Whether in battles for loose pucks or positioning in front of the net, the Bruins should continue to win out in most of those situations. But there is one caveat: The Bruins must control their emotions. Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara and Shawn Thornton all crossed the line Thursday in the 5-4 overtime win over the Canadiens, all taking stupid penalties, which helped Montreal grab its biggest point of the season. We're a big fan of Lucic, in particular, but he has to play with his head on straight.

5. The ghosts from the old Montreal Forum. You knew we had to mention them, right? We don't know what it is about Montreal and Boston, but the Canadiens seem to pull a rabbit out of the hat every time these two teams meet in the playoffs. The ghosts were certainly present in 2002 and 2004, when the higher-seeded Bruins somehow got beat again. Given how one-sided the series has been this season in favor of the Bruins, and given that many people are picking Boston to go the Cup finals, this series will seriously test the ghosts from the old Forum. If the Habs steal Game 1 in Boston, you know the ghosts might be back.

• 1. Tim Thomas versus Carey Price. The sophomore goalie Price has struggled for most of the second half and, at this point, gives us no reason to believe he'll figure it out in time for the playoffs. Thomas, on the other hand, has been Vezina-like from wire to wire this season. Mind you, we don't know much about him when it comes to the playoffs, so that's a point to keep in mind. Still, the Bruins enter this series with a nice advantage in goal. Let's put it this way: If you see Jaroslav Halak in goal during this series, you'll know things haven't gone well for Montreal.

• Boston: Mark Recchi is hot, ending the regular season on a mini-tear, including a four-point outing against Montreal on Thursday. The 41-year-old winger was a solid trade-deadline addition by the Bruins. Center David Krejci finished second on the Bruins with a solid 73-point campaign, but cooled off at the end with only one assist in his last five games.

• Montreal: Alexei Kovalev had a topsy-turvy season, but ended up with 17 points (9-8) in his final 10 regular-season games. Second-line center Tomas Plekanec saw his production dip by 30 points this season, from a career 69 last season to only 39. Brutal. He enters the playoffs without a single point in his past eight games.

• The ghosts of the Montreal Forum have proven us wrong before, but without Markov, we can't see the Canadiens putting up their normal fight. Boston in five.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.