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Montreal Canadiens centre Tomas Plekanec, front, waits to shoot as teammates Raphael Diaz, left, Josh Gorges and Brandon Prust, right, look on during the team's practice Monday, April 29, 2013 in Brossard, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Montreal Canadiens centre Tomas Plekanec, front, waits to shoot as teammates Raphael Diaz, left, Josh Gorges and Brandon Prust, right, look on during the team's practice Monday, April 29, 2013 in Brossard, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Spotlight squarely on Habs penalty killing unit Add to ...

It will be endlessly repeated, mostly because it’s true: in a playoff series where teams are matched this evenly, the tiny has a way of quickly becoming titanic.

When you run a finger down the list of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, one number in particular jumps out: 79.8.

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As in per cent, as in the ratio of opposing power plays the Habs managed to kill off in the regular season.

It’s a dismal figure.

Only the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins were worse among the 16 playoff teams, and the Habs don’t have the benefit of MVP-calibre offensive performers like those teams do.

Beady-eyed onlookers won’t have been surprised that Montreal head coach Michel Therrien has made a point of drilling his penalty killers at length in two days of practice this week as the Habs prepare for the Ottawa Senators.

The Senators power play wasn’t especially fearsome this season (it ranked 20th in the league), but the return of elfin defenceman Erik Karlsson, who is singularly skilled at carrying the puck and gaining the opposing blueline, is problematic from a Montreal standpoint.

If there is any good news, it’s that the Habs allowed only one goal in nine opposition power plays over their final two regular-season games – after allowing 10 goals on the previous 27 (in all, the Habs gave up 35 power-play goals in 48 games, look no further for an explanation of goalie Carey Price’s pedestrian save percentage).

So what goes into an effective power-play?

“We can talk Xs and Os and all that sort of stuff, but when it comes down to it, it’s about commitment,” said rearguard Josh Gorges, who has played more minutes in short-handed situations than any other Hab. “The penalty kill has always been about commitment: do you want to out-work the other power play, do you want to block that shot.”

There have been stretches this season when the Montreal kill has been sharp, and reminiscent of the unit that was second in the NHL last year; when former Habs centre Jeff Halpern, a faceoff and defensive specialist, was reacquired through waivers, the team went through an 11-game stretch when it stifled 28 of 30 opposing power plays.

But the past two or three weeks have been disastrous; when the regular schedule ended, Montreal had the 27th-best penalty kill on home ice (the road is a different story, where the Habs finished 10th).

And here’s the thing: the Canadiens have scored 41 of their 146 goals to this point in the year on the NHL’s fourth-ranked power play, Ottawa’s penalty kill is the class of the league, having negated an impressive 88 per cent of the other team’s opportunities on the man-advantage.

It’s a battle-within-the-battle that could have a disproportionate impact on which team advances beyond the first round.

Montreal winger Colby Armstrong, another regular in four-on-five situations, said the benefit of practising this week is in reminding players of their responsibilities on the ice.

“We want to have everything ironed out going into the playoffs. It’s a read-and-react game, but as a unit you really need to have all four guys on the same page, pressuring in certain situations but not others, otherwise you’re kind of dead in the water,” he said. “It’s a matter of being sharp, knowing your assignments, and knowing what their tendencies are, who’s on the ice, and what you need to take away from them.”

Halpern, who is generally the first to hop over the boards when a penalty is whistled against the Habs, said the secret to any penalty kill is to know when to be aggressive.

“We have to challenge entries and make sure they don’t set up comfortably … they’ll have a lot of different looks with [Sergei] Gonchar and Karlsson on the back end, they’re two of the better guys in the league at running a power play,” said Halpern, who also takes the bulk of the key defensive zone draws.

So the challenge is set, and the Habs claim the dip in form – and in desire to compete – that followed the confirmation of their entry into the playoffs is behind them.

“I don’t have any doubt that come Thursday, we’ll be back to being hungry,” Halpern said.

They’ll have to be if they want to keep playing beyond the third week of May.

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