After finishing first in their division, the Montreal Canadiens begin the pursuit of their first Stanley Cup in 15 years as they play host to the Boston Bruins at Bell Centre on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, CBC, CBCSports.ca).
The Eastern Conference champs took a slow and steady path to first place, and now find themselves playing another Original Six team in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
The Habs (47-25-10) look to build on their stellar play from the past two months in an effort to win their 25th Stanley Cup. Based on the regular-season results, they seem to have a soft matchup, having beaten Boston 11 straight times, including eight consecutive wins this season.
But the Habs are not taking the Cup chase, or the eighth-seeded Bruins, for granted.
"Once the post-season starts, there are no favourites," Montreal's Mike Komisarek said. "Our record against Boston or our record in the regular season is not going to help us win in the post-season. Montreal Canadiens teams aren't defined on what they do in the regular season; they're defined on the success they have in the post-season.
"All we've done in the regular season, throw [it] out the window. We start from Square 1."
The Habs outscored the Bruins 36-16 in 2007-08, continuing a historical dominance over their eastern seaboard rivals. Montreal has won 23 of 30 all-time playoff series, racking up 95 post-season victories against Boston, the most against any team.
One of those series wins came in 2002, when the eighth-place Canadiens toppled the No. 1-ranked Bruins — a result that will surely prove open to the most variable interpretation by Bruins and Habs fans.
The last first-round upset came in 2006 when the Edmonton Oilers beat the Detroit Red Wings, one of only seven quarter-final shockers since 1994.
Injury and inexperience
Injury concerns are threatening to put potholes in the path to victory. Top defenceman Komisarek will likely play in Game 1 despite a hip injury, while the heart and soul of the Montreal team, centre and captain Saku Koivu, is out with a broken bone in his left foot, though he may return next week.
Winger Michael Ryder (knee) and defenceman Francis Bouillon (ankle) are also questionable.
"One reason we were successful this year is that we avoided injuries," said Habs top-scorer Alex Kovalev. "It definitely hurts not to have Saku in the lineup, but a lot of guys are hungry and want to take his place, and hopefully they'll be as successful as he is. We'll see."
Another unknown: how 20-year-old rookie goaltender Carey Price, who has performed like a veteran NHLer since February, will fare in his first-ever Stanley Cup playoff run.
A lynchpin in last year's World Junior Championship drive to gold and AHL playoff MVP in the AHL Canadiens' successful Calder Cup bid, Price has already proven his mettle under pressure in amateur and minor-league play.
"Coach [Guy] Carbonneau came up and told me that the Montreal coaching staff and management would never put me in a position that they thought I couldn't handle," Price told NHL.com. "That's all I needed to hear, and it gave me a lot of confidence moving forward."
Price enters the playoffs having won his last seven starts.
Fire-power up front
The Canadiens can rely on the league's most prolific power play and a potent offence that collected a league-high 262 goals this season. Theirs is not an offence comprised of a few stars, but a deep and balanced front line of which seven players finished with 50 plus points.
They can also rely on offensive stalwart Kovalev, who led franchise scoring this year with 35 goals, a tally not matched in Montreal for the past 12 years.
Tomas Plekanec (29 goals), Christopher Higgins (27) and Andrei Kostitsyn (26) will also be strong performers.
Boston (41-29-12), meanwhile, is in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, when it lost the final three games of its first-round series against Montreal, including a 2-0 heartbreaker in Game 7.
On the positive side, goaltender Tim Thomas posted a sparkling 1.85 goals-against-average in going 5-2-2 over the past three weeks.
"Every game has been so important," he said recently. "It's almost like every game has been a must-win. It's been playoff hockey for a while now. I think that will help us hopefully to be battle tested. We've passed every test so far."
Savard back from injury
Top scorer Marc Savard will make his playoff debut after collecting 63 assists and 78 points this season. He hasn't played since breaking a bone in his lower back on March 22, when he was cross-checked by Steve Begin during a 3-2 shootout loss to the Canadiens.
Boston will miss Chuck Kobasew, second in team goal-scoring (22) behind Marco Sturm, who is sidelined with a broken leg.
Patrice Bergeron, who was cleared for contact in practice on Monday for the first time since suffering a concussion on Oct. 27, is day-to-day.
Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday night in Montreal.