It may be only December 5th, but for fans of passionate hockey, Christmas has arrived 19 days early.
The Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins hold one of the league's oldest rivalries, and as of this writing, the league's best. The two teams have played a number of classic games over the past few years, featuring goals, hits, fights, great goaltending, and some serious drama and intrigue. Making things even more interesting is the fact that, for at least calendar 2013, both teams have been solid contenders
The Habs and Bruins finished second and first, respectively, in their Conference last season, but fans were deprived of a much anticipated playoff matchup when the Habs took an early exit. The Bruins would, for the second time in three seasons, advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. The boys from Beantown were not able to reprise their results from their first playoff run, however, as the Western Conference's Chicago Blackhawks would emerge victorious. In fact, Boston executed one of the more memorable choke jobs in recent playoff history, as the Blackhawks managed two goals in seventeen of game six's waning seconds to put the series away.
Of course, the Bruins did not allow that disappointment to slow them down. The Bruins are again the Atlantic Division's first place team (bearing in mind that the configuration of said division is slightly different this time around), and the Habs are again one seed below them. With a regulation win this evening, however, that placing would reverse, and Les Glorieux would take over the division's number one spot, and put them just below Pittsburgh in the Conference.
With that second cup berth, but no second ring, what did the Bruins do to try to keep their momentum going? Following their heartbreaking loss, the Bruins made a couple of offseason adjustments. First, they made an exchange of wily veterans, allowing Jaromir Jagr to walk while signing Jarome Iginla. Bringing Iggy into the fold brought a bizarre saga full circle, in which Iginla was dealt to the Bruins at the 2013 trade deadline, rejected the deal, and then was eliminated by the Bruins while playing with his new team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Iginla has acquitted himself well thus far, putting up 15 points in 27 games so far, good enough for 5th in team scoring on the Bruins. Iginla plays opposite Milan Lucic, giving Boston a second line that offers some physicality, scoring touch, and the capacity to make good use of centre David Krejci's playmaking ability.
With the Habs using Daniel Briere, Tomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta in a primary tough minutes role over this recent stretch, look for Pleky to be matched up against Krejci et al whenever possible. Given their status as the Bruins most productive trio so far, this may also mean that Travis Moen's traditional migration up the lineup may occur a little earlier than we've grown accustomed to.
Even more significant than the Iginla move was the Bruins decision to end their relationship with young star Tyler Seguin and deal him to the Dallas Stars. While there's no way to know what the Bruins organizational motivations were for dealing Seguin, rumours swirled of immaturity and behavioural issues that Boston wasn't prepared to tolerate anymore. In any case, Boston lost an exceptional young talent, and a player who was a constant threat when playing the Habs last year.
Coming back from the Lone Star state was Swedish winger Loui Eriksson, a solid second liner perhaps best known for earning the most effusive and frequent recognition of his, "underrated," nature of any player in the past twenty years. Eriksson slots in on the Bruins first line, playing alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand in Seguin's old spot. Eriksson falls right behind Iginla in the team scoring chart, scoring 14 points in 22 games so far. The Habs matchup in this case is likely their recent secondary toughs group, including Alex Galchenyuk, Lars Eller, and Brandon Prust.
The most important matchup on this evening, however, may be the battle between the two goaltenders. Montreal's Carey Price and Boston's Tuukka Rask can each stake a claim to the title of the league's best goalie, and should they continue to play the way they have to begin the season, each will likely himself in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy. Price's save percentage is second in the league at even strength, and third when one includes special teams in the calculation. Rask is not far behind in either category, posting strong numbers himself.
Thankfully for the Habs, Montreal has absolutely owned Rask in his career. The young, Finnish keeper has made twelve starts against the Canadiens in the regular season, and Rask has suffered the ignominy of losing ten of them. Price, on the other hand, has done at least average work against the Bruins, maintaining a .917 save percentage and managing to win 16 of his 28 starts against Boston.
So, while Montreal has been perfectly competitive to start the season, and is perfectly capable of competing in the matchups described above, the only real point of contention becomes the recent difficulty they've displayed in maintaining puck possession. The New Jersey Devils, in two consecutive games, manhandled the Habs, but couldn't put the puck in the net. The Bruins, a similarly strong possession squad, won't be so forgiving. Look for Montreal to get back to their game tonight, owning the puck and using a strong forecheck to put pressure on the opposition, or look for the Habs' win streak to come to an abrupt end.
For the same giddy excitement we're experiencing, as well as full game coverage from the Bruins' perspective, check out Stanley Cup of Chowder.
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