Canadiens at Islanders - Game Preview

Bruce Bennett

As the embattled Habs head to Long Island, can they regain some traction against Tavares and Co?

For a struggling team like the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Islanders are a welcome sight.

The Canadiens have already done away with the Isles once this season, earning a 4-2 victory on November 10. Reminiscing on that win harkens one back to simpler times, when Carey Price's superlative play was not complicated by the failures of those in front of him.

A quick glimpse of the highlights shows a more confident Canadiens team, and an EGG line that sliced and diced their opponents en route to eight combined points. That line has since been disbanded and reassembled, but if practice lines are any indication, their reunion has been aborted after a single game.

Speaking of the EGG line, let's take a moment to examine the recent play of Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher has but one goal in his last fifteen games, and since being removed from the EGG line and placed with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais, he has been shuffled to a couple of other spots, too. Gallagher's shot rate is down from his rookie year, and the hype spewed about his role with Patches and DD wasn't quite true either, but the fact is that Gallagher is still producing more shots than anyone not on the Habs' top defensive pair. Gallagher is due to finally hit double digits any time now, and he isn't going to stop at ten.

If there's any team that a cold player may have a chance to score on, it's the 2013-14 New York Islanders. The Islanders are bleeding goals, suffering the consequences of icing a paper-thin defence in combination with some abhorrent goaltending. Behind number one defender Travis Hamonic, the defence is either young, weak, or both. Many of the names may be unfamiliar to Habs fans, though most have almost certainly Calvin De Haan in action. After all, the unfortunate rearguard has been all over the highlight reels as he's been lit-up by some of the NHL's best recently.

The Islanders ended the lockout-shortened 2013 season on a high note, giving the Penguins a tough opening series and generally supporting some high expectations coming into this year. After all, the Islanders centrepiece is young superstar John Tavares, and he's certainly held up his end of the bargain. The 23-year-old is currently fifth in NHL scoring, in the company of Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, and Perry, among others.

With the hopes of creating a dynamic duo in mind, Isles GM Garth Snow dealt Tavares long-time sidekick, Matt Moulson, to the Sabres for the dangerous Thomas Vanek. Vanek's shot production has seen an uptick compared to previous seasons, and he has managed a solid 22 points in 30 games this year. Tavares has also had a positive impact on the third member of the Islanders first line, as Kyle Okposo's point total puts him on the leaderboard for points so far.

Unfortunately for NYI fans, the first line is about where the good news ends. About 40% of the Islanders' middling goal production comes from that trio, and when your goals against total resembles the Islanders, that secondary scoring simply isn't good enough.

The Islanders are Edmonton east at this point, allowing even more goals than the vaunted Oilers defence. To establish further context, the Islanders have allowed 11 more goals than the Habs' Sunday opponent, the Florida Panthers, and 23 more than the lowly Buffalo Sabres. So who's the man backstopping this operation?

Kevin Poulin, the Montreal native likely to start this evening, has made sixteen starts for the Isles so far, and has been less than inspiring. Poulin, on average, allows more than three goals a game, and is sporting a .892 save percentage. Carey Price, conversely, is just coming off a stretch in which he went ten games without allowing more than two goals. (UPDATE: It's Nabokov tonight. Luckily, everything I said about Poulin being bad still applies and more.)

Of course, this isn't to say that Poulin doesn't have some redeeming qualities. Among his merits, for example, is this recent save, in which Poulin made an extraordinary effort to stone Mike Ribeiro, an act surely committed on behalf of his home city.

So, can the Canadiens take an advantage of an opportunity against one of the NHL's poorer squads? While the even strength possession numbers are equal, Montreal's advantages in net and on special teams are substantial. The Habs, a team full of potential, need to get back on track. A game that plays out like November 10th's would be a good place to start.

For a look at the three skaters who have been voted off the Island, and analysis of the Islanders propensity to quickly give up goals after they score, spend some time at Lighthouse Hockey.

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