The weekend started so promisingly.
The Habs took it to the New York Islanders, posting the type of performance that befits their promise a playoff and Stanley Cup contender. While they couldn't muster more than the eventual game-winner, scoring opportunities were ample and the goaltending was customarily excellent. Following a stretch of disappointing play, that 1-0 victory was refreshing.
24 hours later, the Habs emerged at the opposite end of the quality spectrum. If playoff seeding, or at this point, playoff qualification, becomes a matter of a couple of points, the Canadiens will regret Sunday night's game against the Panthers. The Cats are not entirely the horrific squad that the standings might make them out to be, but they made the Habs look terrible. If it weren't for another night of above-average goaltending, the Habs would have been blown-out. Instead, they simply missed on two points that were ripe for the picking.
So, after earning two of a possible six points against three of the Eastern Conference's weakest teams, the Habs are going to have to do this the hard way.
The Phoenix Coyotes are a middling team, sitting two points out of the last wildcard spot in the Western Conference. A little weaker than the Habs and Panthers at even strength so far, the 'yotes have benefited from some shooting luck to keep them up in the standings so far. Phoenix lacks an offensive superstar, but features eleven regular roster players who are currently shooting over 9%. The Canadiens, conversely, have none.
The Coyotes also have decent goaltending, primarily thanks to the play of possible Olympic goaltender Mike Smith. Smith has faced more shots at even strength than any other goaltender this year, and has maintained a respectable .921 save percentage. Smith has also never failed to earn a point against the Habs, going 2-0-3 in his career against Montreal.
Something's going to have to give with regard to that last statistic, however, as Carey Price can say the same thing about his starts against the Coyotes. The probable Team Canada starter boats an out of this world .940 save percentage in his five career starts against Phoenix, winning all five and allowing nine goals total. If Price is on his game, and the Habs continue their low-scoring ways, we might be in for a low-scoring affair this evening.
The Canadiens are still waiting for Rene Bourque to make his return to the lineup, but it will be the desert dogs facing the most burdensome injury situation this evening. Shane Doan did not make the team flight, and will remain at home to nurse a flu bug while the Coyotes start their road trip. On a team that does offence by committee, Doan represents their foremost threat. His absence takes a bite out of the Coyotes scoring, a situation somewhat akin to Montreal playing without Pacioretty.
Minus Doan, the Dogs will have to turn to some of their other weapons to pick up the slack. Martin Hanzal, a player the Habs have not faced in almost 25 months, is one of the only Phoenix players to score consistently without the advantage of an inflated shooting percentage.
The Coyotes have also proven able to drive offence from the back-end, as defenders Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are two of the league's most potent scorers from the blue-line. Yandle is Phoenix's closest imitation of Montreal's P.K. Subban, a big minutes, first pairing defender who drives possession and scores often. Ekman-Larsson does not fit into an convenient, arbitary comparison, as the youngster is a solid offensive player, but has been overwhelmed at times while playing big minutes on the second pair.
In summary, the Coyotes are another middling squad, and with depth through their lineup, should matchup reasonably well with the Habs. The Canadiens, unable to score of late, should, in theory, have a chance to wake up against the less-than-stingy 'yotes. While they aren't world-beaters by any means, Phoenix is on the cusp of being the type of team that losing to would be understandable. Unfortunately, the Habs don't have that option this evening - they already used it on Philly and Florida.
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