Canadiens at Hurricanes - Game Preview

Grant Halverson

If the Habs are a two-faced team, which Canadiens squad will show up to close out 2013?

The Montreal Canadiens are becoming a very consistent team. Perhaps not when it comes to say, holding on to the puck, or scoring goals. If defiance of logic and expectations is your metric of choice, however, the Canadiens may be league leaders.

In recent weeks, the Habs have played a couple of tantalizing games, the Islanders and Lightning games among them. Those games harkened to the Habs' projection for this season, as the Habs maintained control of the puck, held a heavy advantage in scoring chances, and got the goaltending they needed to keep them in the game. In those games, they've looked like a team that deserves a 23-14-3 record.

In what seems to be becoming a pattern, they have followed those games with a lacklustre loss to one of the league's lacklustre teams. Immediately following the Isles game, the Habs laid down against the Panthers and suffered a 2-1 loss. On Sunday night, they did the same, allowing Florida to double them up on scoring chances and come away with a 4-1 victory. Against a team who the Habs so dominated last year, they simply could not gain traction.

Tonight, the Habs will face another member of the NHL's brigade of underachievers. The Carolina Hurricanes enter tonight in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, and eight points out of a playoff spot. Despite good efforts against good teams, like the Caps and Penguins, the Hurricanes have lost five in a row. With two games to go before the midpoint of the 2013-14 NHL season, the Hurricanes need to start winning now if they wish to remain in contention for a playoff spot.

The 'canes, coached by Montreal idol Kirk Muller, are something a top-heavy team. Their bottom six wingers are a mix of fringe NHLers and young guys, while their defence sorely misses the veteran presence of the injured Joni Pitkanen. Jim Rutherford has hedged his bets that the Hurricanes will win on the strength of their stars, his team built around Eric and Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin, and Cam Ward. In a year like this one, where those four men are largely not performing, it becomes impossible for Carolina to have success.

What's gone wrong with Carolina's big four? Let's start with tonight's probable starter in net, Cam Ward.

Now in the third year of a six year contract worth almost $38M, it's becoming harder and harder to look back to a time when Ward was a good NHL goalie. The beneficiary of a playoff performance that earned him a Stanley Cup in his rookie season, Ward's reputation exceeds his production of late. Ward has missed significant time this season, and when he has played, his play has been below average. On a team where the stars aren't scoring, Carolina must have more from it's third highest paid player.

As for those snakebitten stars, each of Carolina's best forwards is experiencing a remarkable bout of bad luck. The captain, Eric Staal, has been saddled with Tuomo Ruutu and Jeff Skinner, and is struggling to keep his head above water in possession. Coupled with a shooting percentage that is markedly lower than his typical production, it's easy to see why Carolina isn't getting the offence it has from No. 12 in seasons past.

That brings us to Carolina's top line, composed of Semin, Jordan Staal, and former Sabre Nathan Gerbe. Like the Staal brothers, Semin is also shooting at a prodigiously low rate. Of course, Semin is much more valuable than just a scorer, as he is also likely the Hurricanes best puck possessor as well. When combined with Staal, the two make up a formidable pair, and one that likely deserves the attention of the Habs' top defenders this evening. While the Hurricanes need the luck of all three of their top guns to turn around, Semin is the man most likely to act as the catalyst in any 2014 turn-around.

For the Habs, the frustrating day-to-day continues. The penalty kill and goaltending have been excellent. The roster remains uninjured. The powerplay, regardless of its recent slump, is always ready to score. Despite all of this, it's the Habs' lack of identity at even strength that continues to haunt them. The Canadiens are a quick, skilled, and persistent team that could leverage their positive traits game to be an above average possession team and playoff contenders if they wished. Instead, they appear resigned to dumping the puck time and time again, grinding their way toward mediocrity.

Until they can demonstrate consistency at 5v5, the team and its fans will continue to be stuck in the same spiral, where every night is a question of Jekyll or Hyde.

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