On Thursday evening, the Canadiens were a dominant team. They won puck battles, passed and skated well, scored goals, and essentially gave the Sabres no hope from the outset. The Canadiens walked into the First Niagara Centre with the knowledge that they were facing an inferior opponent, and did what they should have done several other times this season. Tonight, the Canadiens will look for a similar game, albeit with much more at stake.
As the Eastern Conference playoff picture begins to solidify itself, the Leafs have entrenched themselves in the middle of the playoff pack. The Leafs are likely to find themselves in the five or the six seed, as they continue to battle with the Ottawa Senators. The Canadiens are in a similar position, with their playoff spot clinched but seeding still to be determined by the outcome of their season-long joust with the Boston Bruins. While each team still has eight games to play, including this one, there is a strong possibility that these two teams meet in round one of the NHL playoffs.
The Leafs continue to be one of the NHL's poorest possession teams, but have compensated in other ways. The Leafs have a decent, middle-of-the-pack powerplay that they can pair with one of the league's top penalty kills. The Leafs have also been finding the bounces in the offensive zone, with a team shooting percentage second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the entire. Finally, the Buds have had some solid goaltending, with James Reimer and Ben Scrivens presenting themselves as dependable options at different times of the season.
The Canadiens have faced Ben Scrivens twice this year, in both the difficult to watch season-opener and the most recent Habs-Leafs game, in which the Canadiens took the victory at the ACC. However, James Reimer will be between the pipes for the Leafs tonight, and the Canadiens can likely expect him to be solid. Reimer has a .920 save percentage in six starts against the Canadiens, earning three victories. It's worth noting that Reimer was unable to finish one of those starts, as a mishap involving Brian Gionta left Reimer with a concussion. Adding to Reimer's resume is his play in his last start against the Canadiens. While the Habs played easily their worst game of the year that night, and perhaps their worst in recent memory, Reimer did earn the shutout in a six-nothing victory. If the Canadiens can put thirty-seven shots on Reimer again tonight, it would be a step toward a better result than the one they found on that bleak February evening.
Two-hundred feet from Reimer will be Carey Price, who will be getting the start against the Leafs for the fourth time this season. Price, in his career, has posted a .920 save percentage against Toronto, earning three shutouts in the process. Price was solid last time out in Toronto, allowing only two Leaf goals. That win was the eleventh of his career against Toronto, to go with ten regulation losses and one in extra time.
Outside of net presence Frazer McLaren, one of Toronto's best hopes to put the puck past Price will be Nazem Kadri. The former 7th overall pick has exploded for forty points in forty games, good enough for a share of team scoring lead (tied with Phil Kessel) and 13th place overall in the NHL. Inquiring minds have determined that Kadri's hot streak won't last forever, as he has personified the Leafs shooting luck to-date. Meanwhile, the Canadiens Max Pacioretty has been snake-bitten of late, amidst an otherwise productive season. Pacioretty will attempt to regress back toward the goal column of the scoresheet this evening, and thereby make good on the prediction of fearless blog-leader Andrew Berkshire.
With a myriad of injuries, Joffrey Lupul, one of the premiere offensive players on the Leafs, has found his way into only one of their three games with the Habs so far this year. Lupul looks set to miss another, as a recent concussion will likely have the Leafs treating their star forward cautiously in order to preserve him for the playoffs. The Leafs may also be without former-Canadien Mikhail Grabovski, who recently visited a specialist to seek insight on a chronic gastro-intestinal problem. Grabovski, normally one of Toronto's best forwards, has seen his ice-time decrease substantially in his last two games, and perhaps an illness is part of the explanation.
On the Canadiens' side of the injury ledger, Raphael Diaz is still out while Colby Armstrong will be unavailable as well. Of course, Alexei Emelin's season is over after his encounter with Milan Lucic, and Nate Beaulieu will look to continue his impressive call-up on the Canadiens blue-line in his place. Beaulieu will be looking for a win this evening, both as a start to his Canadiens career and to his team's playoff efforts.