For months, seemingly, the Canadiens have been a point or two up on or behind the Boston Bruins in the quest for the Northeast Division crown. On the heels of two of their poorest efforts of the season, the Canadiens are fortunate enough to have maintained that lead over their closest rivals. In an effort to maintain the division lead, the Canadiens are tasked with taking on the conference-leading Penguins on their home ice.
While there are many contributing factors, the fact that underscores the Canadiens two recent losses is that too many pucks have entered gone into their net. With Carey Price in the crease for most of those goals, he'll get a chance to rest and shake off two of the toughest starts of his career. Peter Budaj will take the reins in Pittsburgh, bringing with him a personal seven game winning streak. Budaj has allowed only eleven goals over the stretch, helping to solidify what has easily been the best year of his career. Budaj has started three times against the Penguins, going 0-1-2 despite a .914 save percentage.
Pittsburgh figures to counter with incumbent starter Marc-Andre Fleury. After solving the Pens' back-up, Tomas Vokoun, to the tune of six goals in a Bell Centre barn-burner that took place in early match-up, the Canadiens could not muster a single puck past Fleury as he earned the shutout a few weeks later. Fleury has twenty-five career starts against the Habs, posting a record of 14-8-2. Fleury has been inconsistent in his efforts, however, allowing more than three goals per game with a save percentage of .893.
While the Canadiens struggles are front and centre, the Penguins are not without tribulations of their own. The Penguins will be missing two top forwards in Sidney Crosby and James Neal. Crosby and Neal have both skated since suffering a broken jaw and a concussion, respectively, but neither has had a time-table established publicly for their return. The Penguins will also be without defenceman Paul Martin, who was enjoying what some around the hockey world have characterized as a solid rebound season, and may be missing Evgeni Malkin as well. Malkin took part in practice yesterday, but was not included in any of the Penguins' line configurations. Malkin remains day-to-day with an upper body injury.
The Canadiens will continue to go without Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin on the back-end, and Colby Armstrong up front. Joining the list of Canadiens who will not play is Ryan White, whose suspension for a hit to the head of Flyers d-man Kent Huskins is a foregone conclusion. Rather than travel to Pittsburgh, White will travel to Manhattan for an in-person meeting with the NHL's disciplinary brass. White's spot in the lineup should be occupied by Brandon Prust, who was held out of the Flyers game as a precaution.
The ability to withstand the negative effect of injuries, suspensions, and slumps with deep lineups and solid systems are important reasons why the Canadiens and Penguins are at the top of the conference table at the moment. With the Canadiens' season drawing to a close, they'll hope that tonight is the night their recent slump draws to a close as well.
For the Penguins perspective, check out PensBurgh.