NHL

Defense will be key for Canadiens

NESN Douglas Flynn
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The Canadiens didn't make it out of the first round, but they did come the closest of any team to derailing Boston's run to the Stanley Cup this spring. The Bruins needed the full seven games to get past Montreal, with three of the four victories -- including the decisive Game 7 -- coming in overtime.

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The Habs promise to be a tough hurdle for anyone to clear in the Northeast Division again this year. And after last year's emotional and physical series between the ancient rivals, this season's matchups should once again be among the most anticipated clashes of the year.

2010-11 record: 44-30-8, 96 points (2nd Northeast Division; 6th Eastern Conference; lost in first round to Boston, 4-3)

Key additions: F Erik Cole (free agent); G Peter Budaj (free agent); F Michael Blunden (trade with Columbus); F Brian Willsie (free agent); D Jeff Woywitka (free agent); D Mark Mitera (trade with Anaheim)

Key losses: D James Wisniewski (rights traded to Columbus); F Benoit Pouliot (signed with Boston); D Roman Hamrlik (signed with Washington); F Jeff Halpern (signed with Washington); D Alexandre Picard (signed with Pittsburgh); D Paul Mara (free agent); D Brent Sopel (signed with Metallurg Novokuznetsk, KHL); G Alex Auld (signed with Ottawa); F Dustin Boyd (signed with Barys Astana, KHL); F Ryan Russell (traded to Columbus); D Mathieu Carle (traded to Anaheim)

Burning question: Will the Canadiens' defense hold up?

Canadiens at a glance

 
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Montreal parted ways with much of its blue line after the season. The Habs traded the rights to pending free agent Wisniewski to the Blue Jackets, who promptly inked him to a six-year, $33 million deal. Montreal also watched as Hamrlik signed with Washington, Sopel went to the KHL and even spare defenseman Picard found a new home in Pittsburgh. Mara was also let go, though the former Bruin remains unsigned.

The only addition Montreal made on the blue line was signing depth defenseman Woywitka. The Habs did retain Gill and re-signed Andrei Markov to a three-year, $17.25 million deal. That $5.75 million cap hit is actually higher than Wisniewski's $5.5 million in Columbus, which is a big risk for a player who appeared in just seven games last year and 45 the season before that due to ankle and knee injuries. Josh Gorges was also limited to just 36 games last year with a knee injury. Montreal will be counting on both staying healthy, as well as 37-year-old Jaroslav Spacek, who played just 59 games in '10-'11. Emerging star P.K. Subban will be asked to take on a bigger role and Yannick Weber will likely see regular duty as well.

2011-12 outlook: There may be some questions on the blue line outside of Subban (14-24-38 last year), but the Habs do have a balanced attack up front and Price is coming off a strong season in net (38-28-6, 2.35 GAA, .923 save percentage, 8 shutouts). The offense lacks a dominant star, but has numerous threats with Tomas Plekanec (22-35-57), Michael Cammalleri (19-28-47), Gionta (29-17-46), Andrei Kostitsyn (20-25-45) and Scott Gomez (7-31-38).

The Canadiens also added some much-needed size with the signing of 6-foot-2, 205-pound Cole (26-26-52), though he struggled the last time he left Carolina and lasted less than a season in Edmonton before returning to the Hurricanes. Montreal also hopes Pacioretty will be able to return to the form he was showing prior to the season-ending injury he suffered from Chara's hit. Pacioretty had 14-10-24 totals in 37 games, including 11 goals and 17 points in his final 20 games.

Did you know? The Bruins and Habs have met in the playoffs more than any other two teams in the NHL, and most of that postseason history has been filled with painful memories for Boston. The Bruins are just 9-24 in the 33 playoff series between the Original Six rivals, but Boston has the upper hand of late. They've won the last two encounters, sweeping Montreal in the opening round in 2009 and prevailing in this spring's seven-game epic that kick-started the Bruins' run to the Cup. Boston's success against the team that once owned them in the playoffs dates back a bit further than that, though. Beginning with the Bruins' Adams Division final win over Montreal in 1988 for Boston's first series win against the Habs since 1943, the B's are 7-4 in the last 11 playoff clashes with the Canadiens.

Tagged: Bruins, Hurricanes, Stars, Canadiens, Jeff Woywitka, James Wisniewski

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