At first glance, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs look well-matched. After all, the two teams enter tonight's game with identical 14-9-3 records, occupying the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference. For the third time this week, however, the Montreal Canadiens enter a game that they should win.
Last night, playing at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., the Habs put forth a strong effort. The Canadiens dominated the Capitals in the early going, and stepped out to a 2-1 lead by the game's midpoint. They would then go into a shell for the better part of the next period, waiting until the middle of third period before they would again take the play back to the Capitals. Unfortunately, the buzzing Habs could not get the goal they sought, and would eventually succumb in a shootout. The take-away here is that while the final result was undesirable, the Habs' play was consistent with that of their recent winning streak. The boys are still hot, and they'll look to carry that momentum forward as they defend their home ice against of one of the franchise's oldest rivals.
The Leafs are a curious case, and their ability to overcome a complete inability to maintain consistent possession of the puck and remain competitive has become a frequent topic of discussion in the NHL media and blogosphere. As injuries and other absences began to pile up of late, however, it became more difficult for the Buds to maintain their success. The Leafs have lost three straight coming into tonight, and four of their last five. Last night, the Leafs had their strategy turned against them, as the Buffalo Sabres allowed themselves to be heavily out-possessed, but emerged victorious on the strength of Ryan Miller's strong play and some opportunistic scoring.
The injury situation in Canada's largest city has improved somewhat, but the Leafs will still be without two key players this evening. Dave Bolland, acquired in an offseason trade, suffered a nasty skate cut a while back and is still unavailable. Scorer Joffrey Lupul, meanwhile, hurt his groin in Wednesday's contest with the Penguins, so he'll be out this evening as well. Compensating for these losses against the Sabres, the Leafs basically went with a three line forward group, leaving Colton Orr, Carter Ashton, and and Jerred Smithson with minimal ice time.
Assuming the Leafs stick with that shortened bench, their second line of Raymond-Kadri-Clarkson may be critical to tonight's outcome. With the Pleky shutdown line doing yeoman's work against the opponent's best of late, and Montreal gaining a significant advantage due to carrying a fourth line that can actually play, it may fall to RKC to prove they an overpower Josh Gorges, Alex Emelin, and in all likelihood, the Lars Eller line.
The Kadri line is an interesting juxtaposition, as the Leafs talented young centre is flanked by two very different free agents. Mason Raymond, picked off the scrap heap, has been a fantastic value, picking up points at a solid clip and putting up possession numbers that are among the Leafs' best without being sheltered zonally. Raymond's counterpart, David Clarkson, on the other hand, was tremendously expensive. Since returning from his season-opening suspension, he too has provided good second line scoring and possession, albeit at a much higher rate of pay.
While each of Toronto's goaltenders have had plenty of work to begin the year, Jonathan Bernier has jumped ahead of James Reimer as the incumbent starter. With Peter Budaj taking the Washington game for the Habs yesterday, tonight's game will a battle of number one goalies.
Bernier, the former member of the Los Angeles Kings who was also acquired by trade this past summer, has been solid in fourteen starts for the Leafs, posting eight wins and a .931 save percentage. The Laval native has never beaten the Habs, however, losing in both of his tries while allowing six total goals.
Facing off against Bernier will be Canadiens superstar Carey Price, who has a much more extensive resume against Bernier's team than Bernier does against Price's. C3P1 (as nicknamed by popular demand) has 23 starts against the Leafs, in which he's earned a .915 save percentage, 11 wins, and three shutouts. On two occasions in 2013 was Price blown-out against Toronto, including a mid-April game in which he allowed three goals on four shots before being pulled, and a six-goal shellacking on a cold night in February, a game which Habs fans will fondly recall as one of the most reviling pieces of hockey ever witnessed. In fact, the game was so disturbing that only a comma splice would do it justice as a descriptor. Price must have exorcised some of those demons by playing well enough to win in a season-opening loss to Toronto a few months back, but if we know anything about Carey, he'll by dying to put up a masterful performance and get the win tonight.
For a look at where we might expect the Leafs to be heading into the new year, an analysis of their recent struggles, as well as an article discussing whether or not the Leafs are any better five years into their five year plan, head over to Pension Plan Puppets.
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