For the first time in the 2013-14 season, the lineup that takes the ice this evening will be the same one that Marc Bergevin wrote on his whiteboard this season.
The Canadiens that we've learned to love so far this season have been the averagest of the average, keeping below the high expectations that accompanied them into the season while also sticking in a wildcard spot as well. Their possession numbers have hovered around 50% for some time, putting them directly into the middle of the pack league-wide. Their record has stayed at or near .500 as well, alternating wins and losses outside two big streaks, one winning and one losing.
A number of factors are at play when analyzing the Habs middling performance so far, including the GM watering down the lineup with offseason moves, Michel Therrien and J.J. Daigneault's confusing deployment of players, and injuries to a couple of the guys that Montreal relies on to be successful. Now, however, it looks like the tide may be turning.
Max Pacioretty played one of his best games of the season yesterday, giving the Canadiens the scoring punch they need at the top of the lineup, while doing enough to make even David Desharnais look good for a night.
With the fourth line repaired, the Habs will now be able to turn their attention to their other big weakness - the third pair. It isn't immediately clear how Alex Emelin will fit into the lineup this evening, but it is clear that either Francis Bouillon or Douglas Murray will be observing from the press box. Murray, especially, has been poorer than even the highly critical predictions of EOTP this summer surmised, and assuming that he is the player that won't be in tonight's lineup, the Habs should have a much improved defense corps tonight.
It's worth noting that there is one minor problem that could rain on this prospective parade of players actually playing this evening. Brendan Gallagher was forced to sit out last night, unable to shake flu-like symptoms that were severe enough that the Canadiens' staff opted not to have him play last night. As of this writing, it isn't clear if Gallagher's sickness persists, but if he's well enough to play, his shot production and cannonball style will be a welcome addition to the top-9.
In addition to their return to health, the Habs also have their opponent's schedule conspiring in their favour. With a tough game against the Los Angeles Kings lined up for tomorrow, the Rangers will rest Henrik Lundqvist this evening to allow him to face their Western Conference foe tomorrow. That means Montreal gets Cam Talbot, he of recent fame as member of a goaltending platoon for the AHL's Connecticut Whale. Talbot's fortunes changed when he was able to usurp Martin Biron as the Blueshirts' backup this season, and he has actually acquitted himself well so far. Talbot has a 3-1 record, fueled by his .933 save percentage. Those four games are the extent of Talbot's NHL career so far, so tonight should be most Habs fans first glimpse of the Rangers rookie. In any case, when the alternative is the man who is likely the NHL's best goaltender, the Canadiens should count themselves lucky to avoid a top-flight 'tender for the second night in a row.
Facing Talbot will be Canadiens starter Carey Price, who took last night off as Peter Budaj fended off the Blue Jackets. Price has owned the Rangers in his career, earning a 7-4-1 record with a .922 save percentage and an improbable four shutouts. Price's subordinate, Budaj, already shut the Rangers out earlier this year, continuing a trend of low-scoring victories over the Manhattan-based squad. Assuming Gallager is good to go, and with their defensive team in better condition, Montreal will hope finally play up to the lofty expectations with which their entered the season.
For an update on former Habs prospect Danny Kristo (it might make you miss him), thoughts on how the Rangers might handle young forward J.T. Miller's development, and game notes from the opposing side, make your way to Blueshirt Banter.
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