First-round breakdown: Canadiens vs. Hurricanes

Updated: April 19, 2006, 11:30 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

How much fun is this going to be? These two teams like to play hair-on-fire hockey and will try to beat the opponent with tempo and speed as opposed to dumbing down the game. This might be the most entertaining series of the first round, and both teams come into the playoffs with significant questions.

In Montreal, there are questions about whether Frenchman Cristobal Huet, who led the league in save percentage at .929, or Swiss-born David Aebischer would or should be the starter. The questions in Carolina are of a broader, more esoteric nature -- like just how good are the Hurricanes, and how do they follow up a franchise-best regular season?

Even though there should be lots of offensive fireworks, Carolina holds a distinct advantage in terms of its offensive depth. When the Canes roll out a third line featuring Doug Weight, Mark Recchi and Ray Whitney, the Habs are going to be in trouble -- either giving up significantly more scoring chances or taking penalties in trying to slow Carolina down.

Although Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette has never won an NHL playoff series, he has galvanized a Carolina team that has been the butt of many hockey jokes the past few seasons. In Montreal, there is the issue of how GM Bob Gainey handles the behind-the-bench duties in the postseason, having taken over as coach while good buddy and assistant Guy Carbonneau learns the coaching ropes.

"Bob will prepare his team to play to their strengths," one scout familiar with Gainey told ESPN.com. "He's not going to engage in a game that works against him."

For what it's worth (next to nothing, but we'll mention it anyway), the Hurricanes dominated the Canadiens in the regular season, winning all four games and outscoring them 25-9.

Why the Hurricanes will win: One pro scout told ESPN.com that what he liked about the Hurricanes was that they "showed no slippage." They didn't hit the wall that some overachieving teams hit. The thing about the Hurricanes, picked by most to miss the playoffs, is that they had a radically different set of expectations from the get-go.

Eric Staal came to training camp and decided to become a superstar; Rod Brind'Amour decided to play like he was 10 years younger; Cory Stillman gets a point per game regardless of what jersey he puts on; and Justin Williams forgot he was washed up. All factors in a unique set of circumstances in Carolina, circumstances that point to a long playoff run.

A team that performed well at the raucous RBC Center should enter the playoffs as healthy as it's been all season, with the exception of Erik Cole, who remains sidelined with a broken neck. That means the Canes will simply be too much for the Habs to handle. If there is a weak spot, it will be along the blue line, but even there, Carolina is deep and dependable.

Because they have so much firepower up front, there isn't pressure on guys such as Bret Hedican, Mike Commodore, Glen Wesley and Aaron Ward to jump too aggressively into the play, even if Laviolette gives them the green light to do so. In goal, the technically sound Martin Gerber should be more than the equal of either Aebischer or Huet.

Why the Canadiens will lose: If you watched the Canadiens cough up a three-goal lead and lose to the Devils on Tuesday night, then you'll know why the Hurricanes present a very difficult challenge. Defensively, the Canadiens are prone to mistakes and are wildly streaky, having lost four of six to finish the regular season. That also goes for their goaltending, which has been mostly terrific but has developed the odd fissure.

As a result, the question that Gainey will have to answer is which netminder to start. Aebischer has the most playoff experience (13 games to Huet's zero), but Huet was the lifesaver when the Habs looked like they were headed over a cliff a month ago. Gainey can obviously use both goalies, but he'll have to choose wisely. If Montreal gets down early to Carolina, this series could be over real quick.

The Habs have proved to be opportunistic on offense with the fifth-ranked power-play unit in the league. But they rely too heavily on leading scorer Alexei Kovalev to provide offense, especially with Saku Koivu suffering from a strange case of "big contract-little production" syndrome after signing a lucrative multiyear deal during the season. On the other side of the special teams, Montreal's 21st-ranked penalty-killing unit looks to be overmatched by a Carolina power play that will ice two potent units.

Prediction: Carolina in five.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.