Having suffered three consecutive embarrassing losses, and allowing eighteen goals in the process, the Canadiens returned to the Bell Centre on Thursday night and managed to fend off the Tampa Bay Lightning to earn a victory. While some of the factors that led to that losing streak, such as egregious lapses in defensive coverage, were still on display, the Canadiens got the bounces for once and played well enough to take a victory from an also-ran team in a division full of them. Now, the Canadiens will graduate to take on the current leaders of that same division, and will have to contend with a team whose playoff fortunes are still up in the air.
The Washington Capitals are currently sitting in the Eastern Conference's third seed, by virtue of leading their division with fifty points. The Capitals have two more points than the New York Rangers, currently in eighth, and the Winnipeg Jets, currently out of the playoffs in ninth place. While a loss, and even a regulation loss, would not entirely derail their playoff aspirations, the Capitals would be doing themselves a favour by taking two points home from the Bell Centre. A point or two left unearned could be the difference between home-ice and the alternative, or even no playoffs at all.
The Capitals playoff drive was dealt a potentially serious blow when top centre Nicklas Backstrom was struck in the arm by a Mike Green slapshot during their loss to the Senators on Thursday. Backstrom left the game, missing the latter half of the third period. His day-to-day status, in addition to the similar situations of Joel Ward and Marcus Johansson, thins the Capitals forward ranks at a time when their margin for error could not be slimmer. The decision as to which of the three will suit up against the Habs will likely be made close to game-time.
The Canadiens are in a similarly contentious situation, with the notable difference that they already have clinched their playoff spot. The Canadiens are back in second place after beating the Lightning, but their two point advantage will have to withstand the two games in hand the Bruins hold over them due to recent game postponements in Boston. Given how tightly-packed the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture is, and the fact that Canadiens could finish the regular season in either the two or the four seed, the Canadiens pool of potential opponents is as large as six, including the Capitals.
Like the Capitals, the Canadiens are missing a trio of important players. Michael Ryder is dealing with an upper-body injury, while Raphael Diaz (UPDATE: Raphy's back - he'll be in the lineup this evening) is still recuperating from his concussion. Barring a miracle recovery at several times the speed of Erik Karlsson's, Alexei Emelin will not be on the ice any time soon. Finally, depth forward Colby Armstrong is out, while Ryan White serves his the third game of his five game suspension.
The Canadiens are yet to take a single shot on Capitals starter Braden Holtby this season, as Michal Neuvirth has stepped in for both previous Capitals-Canadiens matchups. Neuvirth has gone 1-1 in those games, allowing six goals in total. Holtby is 9-6-1 on the 2013 season, posting a .918 save percentage. The Canadiens will go back to Carey Price, who a 4-7 career record against the Capitals. Price has posted a .903 save percentage while allowing about three goals a game.