In the 2012-13 NHL season, the Montreal Canadiens finished fourth in goals per game, averaging more than three. Their opponents this evening, the Washington Capitals, were right behind them, finishing fifth league-wide at just a fraction of a goal less per match.
This season, it's a different story.
The Canadiens had an excellent, team-oriented approach to offence, led by sniper Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher, and supplemented by players Alex Galchenyuk, Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec, not to mention the important contributions of d-men P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov.
The Capitals, meanwhile, have the capacity to field one of the most dangerous offensive lines in the league. Anytime you can put Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin on the ice together, there's almost no need to talk about what the rest of the team can do. Tonight should be an explosive battle, but instead, it's shaping up as a case study in mediocrity.
The Capitals have lost almost half a goal from their production last year, a substantial margin that has pushed them halfway down the NHL's rankings. Add the possible absence of Ovechkin, who will be a game-time decision tonight, to the mix, and you have a recipe for low-scoring Capitals team. In fact, the scoring woes in the District of Columbia have sparked discussion on whether the Capitals should trade Mike Green, the third member of the Caps once-vaunted scoring triumvirate.
The Canadiens have, somehow, been even worse than Washington in that department this season, losing more than half a goal compared to last year's edition of the team. With key secondary scorer Galchenyuk still two weeks or so from returning, Montreal is in a similarly difficult position.
So, to set the stage: we have the two owners of the league's worst losing streaks (Montreal's 3, and Washington's 5), each matching a poor possession game with fundamentally incapacity for scoring goals. The Caps have a great powerplay, and the Habs a solid penalty kill, but both have faltered of late. What can these two teams do to decide tonight's game?
I propose there are two primary factors, the first of which being tonight's goalies. Braden Holtby is expected to go for the Capitals tonight, and he brings a strong body of work against Montreal to the crease tonight. Holtby is 4-0 against Montreal in his career, allowing a total of five goals with a .957 save percentage. Considering that Holtby amassed that track record against some Habs' teams that could actually score, the cumulative effect might just see Holtby get a hat trick tonight and polish off the Habs on his own.
The Canadiens goaltending situation is interesting, as of this writing, neither Peter Budaj nor Carey Price has been named starter for this evening. It has been Michel Therrien's general policy to offer each keeper one half of a back-to-back, but given the Habs struggles of late, there have been murmurs that Therrien may go back to Price for tonight's game. Price always gives the Habs the best chance to win, but he's endured some recent adversity as the Canadiens' skaters have caved in on him over the last few games. Look for Budaj to get tonight's start.
The second factor is, in my opinion, the ever-turning lineup carousel. Michel Therrien has changed his pairings and lines on a near per-game basis of late, trying anything and everything without any outward appearance of logic in his decisions. If the Canadiens opt to continue to sit Raphael Diaz, or burden their best defenceman with Douglas Murray, they're putting themselves at a significant disadvantage before the puck drops.
The Washington Capitals, and head coach Adam Oates, seem to be in a similar situation. While one line appears static when all members are healthy, the forwards below Ovechkin - Backstrom- Marcus Johansson have changed often. Oates' hand may be forced by the presence of absence of Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski (who left last night's game injured), but it will be up to the former playmaker to find the right combinations.