The Montreal Canadiens are on an impressive streak.
The streak has been significant, and it appears to demonstrate the Canadiens are reaching a standard many thought they would not this season. The streak has been composed of close games, as well as what was essentially a blowout. There have been different players who have risen to prominence at different times, doing all they can to keep the streak alive. At times, it seemed certain that the Habs would not be able to maintain their accomplishment, only to have a miracle keep pushing them forward.
You see, for a little more than a month, the Montreal Canadiens have been a marginal-to-poor possession hockey team. Based on their performance last year with a very similar roster, this performance was not expected in many corners. After starting the season strong, the Habs have gone from a 53% playoff lock to a 49% collapse-waiting-to-happen.
The Canadiens have maintained their streak in a few different ways - the "blowout," where the Habs were totally outplayed by the New Jersey Devils, somehow culminated in a shootout victory for the good guys. There have also been numerous closer results, like the Habs wins over the Leafs and Bruins. And whether it's Markov and Subban playing some of their poorer games of the season, or the entire top-9 checking out simultaneously on Saturday night, the team has banded together to keep their dubious streak going. Then, of course, there's the miracle; because becoming one of the four teams that Buffalo has out-possessed this year,almost certainly requires some kind of divine intervention.
Now, despite their uninspired play, the Habs have been able to keep their momentum up in some the desirable areas, too. Earning a win in five straight games briefly put the Habs at the top of their division, and right in the mix with Pittsburgh and Boston to contend for the East's first seed. The secrets to their success have varied at times, but have included some opportunistic scoring and lethal special teams. The undeniable constant has been the play of Carey Price, who has absolutely carried the Habs for the better part of the year. When Price has sat, the play of his contemporary, Peter Budaj, has been excellent as well. If the Habs are to keep rolling this evening, they'll need all of those factors in play again tonight.
The team entering the Bell Centre this evening is none other than the powerhouse Los Angeles Kings, the Western squad but a single season removed from a Stanley Cup championship. Along with the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks, LA is one of three teams in the West that have been perennial contenders for some time now.
The Kings are strong for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their ability to spread out top level talent across their top nine. On the first line, two-way bull Anze Kopitar pairs with sniper Jeff Carter to create a top unit that can do it all. On the second line, underrated scorer Justin Williams makes another versatile crew with Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll. Finally, the third line features former Team Canada centre Mike Richards along with up-and-comer Tyler Toffoli, creating an exceptionally potent third line.
The Kings have two excellent defencemen to man their first two pairs, as powerplay whiz Jake Muzzin benefits from his position alongside Drew Doughty. Doughty, only 24 years old, joins the Habs' P.K. Subban in the conversation for the NHL's best defenceman, and generally provides an all situations anchor for the Kings' D corps. On the second pair, slick sophomore Slava Voynov provides another offensive option while skating nex to the defence-oriented Robyn Regehr.
If the Kings had one weakness, it might have been the absence of their Conn Smythe keeper. Jon Quick is working toward recovering from an injury, and former Leafs back-up Ben Scrivens, acquired in the summer's Jonathan Bernier trade, has filled in for him. While Quick was no slouch before going down, Scrivens has filled in and more, posting one of the NHL's top even-strength save percentages. When one considers the goalie performance the Kings have enjoyed, and combines that with their skaters' ability to suppress shots, it's easy to see only the Bruins have been stingier with goals against than LA has so far.
So, how do the Habs go about undoing one of their toughest opponents to-date? The Kings aren't particularly effective on the powerplay, which should take some of the burden off of C3P1 should the Habs get in penalty trouble. Additionally, while there's an argument to be made for a disparity in quality of talent, a Montreal squad where four lines are rolling might be one of the only teams in the league that can go toe-to-toe with the depth to be found along the Pacific coast. While the Habs were beaten by the indomitable San Jose Sharks earlier in the year, look no further than last's week's Boston game for evidence that Montreal can beat a high-calibre team while exerting some control over the flow of the play.
As their schedule eases in anticipation of the turn of the calendar, the Kings represent one of Montreal's last remaining significant challenges. The question is, which of Montreal's streaks will continue after this evening?
For a look at whether the Kings might be sluggish in the second, and a clearly unreliable awards watch article that doesn't even mention Plekanec in the Selke paragraph, check out Jewels From The Crown.
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