After a rigorous offseason of rehabilitating painful injuries, early mornings in the weight room, and enduring a strictly-regimented diet, the Canadiens have finally arrived at the moment that makes it all worthwhile - a high-stakes affair against the extended Buffalo Sabres roster.
Frequent were the nights when the Habs' young guns would fall asleep, dreaming of the day when they might have the chance to take the shot that would win a preseason game against a team likely to finish outside of the playoffs. Now, that time has come.
The Sabres have a number of weapons in their arsenal, including offensive dynamo Thomas Vanek, former Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller between the pipes, towering defenceman Tyler Myers, and good Canadian boy Steve Ott ready to confront the Canadiens. Needless to say, only those with the strongest character will emerge from tonight's collision at the Bell Centre.
All jokes aside, the preseason might be the best time to watch the Sabres play this year. Expectations for their NHL group are low this year, as beyond the group of veterans mentioned above, and a few other notables like Cody Hodgson, the Sabres lack both the high-end talent and the organizational depth to be contenders this year. Their prospect group, however, is more impressive. The Sabres have an elite farm system full of high-end talent, and while some of that talent, like centre prospect Zemgus Girgensons, may make the Sabres' roster this year, others will be headed back to their current squads for further seasoning.
Players to look for among Buffalo's up-and-comers include the aforementioned Girgensons, young forwards like Joel Armia and JT Compher, and 2013 first round defencemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. While preseason game rosters are difficult to predict, odds are that at least few of these promising youngsters will take to the ice tomorrow.
The Sabres roster may also feature a number of young players with an improved shot at taking the ice when Buffalo plays Detroit in their regular-season opener. At training camp, centre Johan Larsson is in the middle of Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis, forming what could be a second line. Larsson, along with goalie Matt Hackett and a pair of picks, came to the Queen city in last year's Jason Pominville trade.
Compelling as well is the contrast between the development of Mikhail Grigorenko and Alex Galchenyuk, each a top-flight prospect from the 2012 draft. Grigorenko was trumpeted as a favourite to be chosen by the Canadiens at third-overall, but the Habs eventually opted for Galchenyuk instead. Grigorenko struggled in Western New York last year, managing five points in 25 games before being returned to his QMJHL team. Galchenyuk, meanwhile, was a solid supplementary scorer for the Habs in limited minutes, and looks poised to break out this year. While each player's circumstances, such as Grigorenko's possible mismanagement last year and Galchenyuk's playing on a better team, will certainly have affected their statistics, it will be interesting to see how each player grows over the seasons to come.
Today's game is also an opportunity for many of the Canadiens' exciting young players to take to the ice wearing La Sainte-Flanelle again, or for the first time. Highly-touted young players like Sebastian Collberg and Charles Hudon are at their second Canadiens camp, while others, like Christian Thomas and Mike McCarron are participating for the first time.
Look for an update with starting lineups as we get nearer to game time.
UPDATE: We have lines, courtesy of John Lu: