BROSSARD, Que. — This is how the Montreal Canadiens would’ve have drawn it up.
They enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs brimming with the type of confidence winning nine of 14 games would naturally inspire, and they do it with a healthy roster that boasts five lines of offensive depth and a couple of extra bodies on the blue line.
Considering what’s at stake for the Canadiens this post-season, it’s an enviable position to be in.
“It’s a luxury,” said Canadiens head coach Claude Julien on Monday. “We’re lucky and fortunate enough to have that situation.”
It wasn’t a given.
Defenceman Jordie Benn, who had served as a stabilizing force since coming over in a late-February trade with the Dallas Stars, suffered an upper-body injury with six games left on the schedule. Top defenceman Shea Weber was sent home from Florida with a lower-body injury that required further examination two days later. And when rugged blueliner Alexei Emelin went down with a suspected knee injury last Wednesday in Buffalo, it was starting to look ominous.
But Weber and Benn appeared no worse for wear during Monday’s one-hour practice. Both have been confirmed to begin Montreal’s first-round series against the New York Rangers, which is set to kick off at the Bell Centre on Wednesday. And there’s faint hope that Emelin, who’s been ruled out for Game 1, isn’t too far behind.
“It’s huge,” said two-time Stanley Cup champion Andrew Shaw. “Going in healthy and hungry — that’s a dangerous threat.”
It had better be for this group.
If the window to win for the Canadiens is open until star goaltender Carey Price’s digestible $6.5-million cap hit comes off the books in the summer of 2018, they may not have a better chance than the one they’re currently staring at. They almost certainly won’t.
The 29-year-old Price is in the heart of his prime, 38-year-old Andrei Markov is defying Father Time with one of the best seasons of his career, 31-year-old Weber isn’t likely to get better than he is right now, captain Max Pacioretty has grown into his role and provided a team-leading offensive season, speedy forwards Paul Byron and Phillip Danault have played well above their heads, and pending unrestricted free agent Alexander Radulov has fulfilled his promise as a low-risk, high-reward addition.
Perhaps most importantly, the team has proven to be completely committed to the tight-checking style Julien implemented when he replaced Michel Therrien back on Feb. 14.
“That’s what it takes to win in the playoffs,” said Price.
That, and a balanced attack.
It’s in pursuit of balance that Julien is placing Alex Galchenyuk — who finished as Montreal’s third-highest scorer this season (44 points in 61 games) — on the left wing of the team’s fourth line with Steve Ott and Andreas Martinsen for Wednesday’s game.
“In my estimation, it’s not who you play with, it’s how you play,” Julien said. “Nobody should be worried about their ice time, they should be worried about what they do when they’re on the ice.”
And they should be focused on the task of shutting down a New York team that also comes into the series at full health; one that’s also fighting to keep its window to win open.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is a few holes deep into the back nine of his career, and the Rangers are banking on the 35-year-old to rebound from a sub-standard season.
But even with Lundqvist posting a save percentage lower than .920 for the first time in eight seasons (he finished at .910), and even if the Rangers backed into the playoffs by losing 10 of their last 15 games, they still finished the season with 102 points and the NHL’s ninth-best record.
The defence, which earned its fair share of criticism for the amount of high-quality chances it allowed this season, is chock-full of experience and grit.
Up front, the team has balance, size and speed. Six Rangers forwards finished with 40 points or more this season, none of them — aside from leading scorer Mats Zuccarello — is under six-feet tall, and all of them skate exceptionally well.
“I think they’re built almost exactly as we are, as far as their speed is concerned,” said Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher.
It’s a big part of the reason the Canadiens will need all hands on deck to deal with this challenge.
They believe they’re equipped.
“Depth, character, leadership — you look at all it, and we have it,” said Shaw. “We need to push ourselves, we gotta hold each other accountable.
“We’ve got everything we need, we just gotta go out there and do it.”