During the month of October, the Canadiens have made hay largely by taking care of business against inferior opponents. The Canadiens have earned weekday wins over the Oilers, Blue Jackets, Flyers, and Jets, giving them four of their six victories so far this year. For the past two Saturdays, however, the Canadiens have been faced with tougher tests.
A fortnight ago, the Canadiens took on the Vancouver Canucks, their first matchup of the season in which their opponent was a bonafide playoff contender. The Habs passed that test with flying colours, earning a 4-1 victory in which they controlled the play for the majority of the game.
So, with a mixed record in their more difficult contests, the Canadiens are now set to take on arguably the league's best team. The San Jose Sharks are top-three possession team, one of only a handful of teams that rank ahead of the Habs in the entire NHL. While their possession record is formidable enough, adding a little bit of good fortune to the Sharks formula makes them even stronger. As it stands, San Jose is near of the table; one of only three squads with seventeen points or more. While the Blackhawks, for one, will argue that San Jose is not the clear-cut alpha male in the NHL herd, it is not difficult to contend that California's northernmost NHL team is about as tough as it gets.
Frightened yet? The Sharks are also a top-ten group on both special teams, just as they are in the faceoff circle. I needn't go on - it's clear that the Sharks have a strong, deep team, and they're firing on all cylinders at the moment.
Of course, the best part of having a deep team is being able to use all of the pieces you've assembled, and for the most part, the Sharks have accomplished this. Their primary injury concern is Dan Boyle, who has not played since he was crushed on cheap hit from former-Hab (now Blue) Maxim Lapierre. Lapierre earned a five-game suspension for his trouble, but Boyle has already missed four. Boyle is questionable against the Habs, having taken part in the Sharks morning skate prior to their Wednesday game against Boston. SJ may also be without Brent Burns, who's day-to-day after taking a puck to the mouth.
The Habs have their fair share of depth, but unlike the Sharks, their injuries (at least in terms of quantity) are starting to pile up. Les Canadiens are missing star winger Max Pacioretty, as well as utility man Brandon Prust, fighter George Parros, and supplementary scorer Daniel Briere. On the back-end, Alexei Emelin continues his rehab, while Davis Drewiske and Douglas Murray will also be absent this evening.
Now, hyperbole aside, the Canadiens are a pretty decent outfit themselves. In most possession metrics, Montreal sits just behind San Jose as a top-five team in the league. The Habs also have history on their side, with a 10-2 record in their twelve meetings with the Sharks franchise. Of course, the Canadiens also have the momentum of a big win over Anaheim two nights ago, largely attributable to my imminent return to game preview authorship.
Other than superstitions surrounding activities here at EOTP, the Canadiens best source of luck this year has been the brilliant play of Carey Price, who has been the Canadiens most consistent player to date. Price is sporting a .936 save percentage coming into tonight's action, placing him behind only Boston's Tuukka Rask and Colorado's Semyon Varlamov among goaltenders with at least five starts. Price's most recent act was a solid night against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday, in which he allowed only one goal on 32 shots, despite being left exposed by his defenders on a couple of occasions. In his career, CP31 is 1-2-1 against San Jose, allowing 13 goals in those matchups. He'll look to improve on that record with a performance commensurate with his excellent work so far in 2013-14.
Opposite Price will be Antti Niemi, who has been rather strong himself this year. Niemi has only played twice against the Habs in his career, taking a win and loss while giving up six goals in the process. In 2013-14, Niemi has a .927 save percentage, and has already earned eight wins during the Sharks early-season hot streak. Niemi, who is also a strong candidate to start in goal for Finland at the upcoming Olympic Games, has allowed no more than three goals in a game this season. The Canadiens will have to rely on a strong, balanced attack to breakthrough for the offence they will almost certainly need to get the victory this evening.
For lineups and any last minute updates, check out the game thread closer to puck drop. For consistently solid Sharks coverage, including a debate on whether Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara should be suspended for a recent headshot on Sharks winger Tommy Wingels, head over to Fear The Fin.
More from Eyes On The Prize:
- Canadiens vs Ducks - Game Recap - Habs bounce back with a big win
- Is David Desharnais on his way to becoming the new Scott Gomez?
- Montreal gives Saku Koivu a standing ovation
- Nobody Likes John Scott (and other links)
- Canadiens vs Ducks - Top Six Minutes - Second Homecoming Edition