For the first time in almost two years, the Montreal Canadiens will battle the Columbus Blue Jackets this evening. In the comparatively short history of the Ohio franchise, the Blue Jackets have played the Habs pretty evenly, earning a record of three wins, four losses, and one tie. Tonight will mark the first meeting between the teams as conference rivals.
After more than a week on the road, the Habs are finally back to sleeping in their own beds. Montreal played four games spanning Western Canada, earning three victories by a combined score of 11-2. The Habs also fell to the Flames to begin the trip, losing 3-2.
The Canadiens letter of the month is 'D', which comes in handy when one aims to complete phrases like, "difficulty maintaining puck possession." That attribute has been the tie that binds Montreal's 2013-14 opponents together, with Vancouver representing the lone exception to the rule. While Columbus is not struggling to the same degree that a team like, say, Winnipeg was coming into their game with the Habs, they have proven over the last season and change that they don't have the underlying numbers that predict success in the NHL.
Of course, poor underlying number didn't stop the Blue Jackets from coming tantalizingly close to the playoffs last year, and the Blue Jackets will be fighting hard to accomplish that goal this year. Led by the heroics of Flyers cast-off Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets overcame poor special teams and even strength performance to come within a heartbreaking tiebreaker of the Western conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
Tonight will be Bobrovsky's sixth career start against the Habs, but first a member of of the Blue Jackets. In five starts as a Philadelphia Flyer, Bob picked four wins, allowing only 12 goals in total and earning a .923 save percentage. Of course, the 25-year-old Russian's career has taken a significant upturn since the Canadiens last saw him, putting the Jackets on his back last year en route to the Vezina Trophy. Bobrovsky has been exceptionally strong to begin this year as well, starting all of Columbus' five games this far and posting a .929 save percentage. Sadly, that strong play has translated to only two wins, as central Ohio's team has had some difficulty getting their offensive game going. A 5.1% shooting percentage has translated to only twelve goals through five games, and likely means that Columbus is due to break out before long.
General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen added another weapon to his arsenal this summer when he signed Nathan Horton to a big contract this summer, but has yet to reap the rewards as Horton rehabilitates a serious shoulder injury. Columbus will also be without Matt Calvert, who himself had surgery in recent days to repair a torn abdominal muscle. While no two injuries are likely to be exactly the same, and I have exactly zero inside information, Hab fans will recall how Rene Bourque was slowed by an abdominal injury following his acquisition from the Calgary Flames a couple of seasons back. In any case, Calvert has a tough recovery ahead of him.
In the absence of one of their good young players, and the fifteen minutes per game he's chewed up so far, the Blue Jackets will rely on other youngsters like Ryan Johansen to pick up the slack. At only 21 years of age, and with his fair share of defensive zone starts, Johansen has been an excellent possession player this year, carrying 56% of Corsi attempts while play is 5-on-5. Johansen's quality play must be a small consolation to a team that opted to select defenceman Ryan Murray one pick ahead of Canadien Alex Galchenyuk, a rather impressive young forward himself.
With top-10 worth 3.33 goals per game, the Canadiens have already proven that the best defence is often a good offence. Of course, proponents of an alternate cliche will be happy to know that the Canadiens defence has also begun with goaltending. Les boys have benefitted from a top-flight top pair of P.K. Subban, not to mention the burgeoning chemistry between Josh Gorges and Raphael Diaz or the pleasantly strong play of Francis Bouillon, Jarred Tinordi, and Nathan Beaulieu on the back-end. The best player in the Habs defensive zone, however, has been none other than Carey Price. Price has been awesome so far this season, and his Tuesday night shutout brought his save percentage to a preposterous .944 for the year. While that number won't last, it's illustrative of the strength of Price's play so far this year. He'll get the start tonight, aiming to rectify some poor performances in past games against Columbus.
Last, but certainly not least, is the injury status of Max Pacioretty. Pacioretty was helped off the ice during Tuesday's tilt with the Jets, and the full extent of his injury is not yet known as of this writing. In any case, he's almost certainly out for tonight, meaning that Michael Bournival and Ryan White will each draw in.
Now that you've reached the end of the preview, you'll be pleased to find out that another one is available over at The Cannon. Please feel free to avail yourself of it.
More from Eyes On The Prize:
- Montreal Canadiens Davis Drewiske undergoes shoulder surgery, out 5-6 months
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- Retour sur le match Canadiens vs Jets
- Canadiens at Jets - Game Recap - Carey Price steals one for the Habs in Winnipeg
- Price gets his first shutout, Lapierre may face discipline (and other links)