For two weeks, EOTP has concentrated on the Olympics, and often the Canadians. Now, it's time to turn our attention back to the Canadiens.
While some of the Canadiens' most important players were competing in Sochi, including P.K. Subban, Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, and Tomas Plekanec, the rest of the team got the chance to rest and recuperate. As a result, tonight's Habs lineup will feature some reinforcements.
Foremost among returnees is Alex Galchenyuk, who has missed the last six weeks with a broken hand. Given their scoring woes, and the sophomore's immense talent, the return of of #27 should be a boon to the Canadiens. The young American gives Lars Eller a skilled and dependable winger, and helps to create the depth that Montreal relies on to be successful.
Freed from the bottom of the American depth chart, Max Pacioretty should return to his usual activity of flying down the left wing alongside David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher. Assuming that Plekanec suits up with running mate Brian Gionta, as well as a player like Travis Moen or Daniel Briere, that means that Rene Bourque takes third line duty with Galchenyuk and the Great Dane.
Even with depth in the top nine improved, the Habs will still have to deal with a shorthanded fourth line. The Olympics were not long enough for a few wounded Habs, as Brandon Prust and Michael Bournival may still need more time to nurse their upper body injuries. Some reports claim that Prust may be on track to join the Habs fourth line tonight, likely alongside Ryan White and Dale Weise, but the London native isn't a sure thing. The speedy rookie Bournival, meanwhile, is almost certainly out while he contends with the effects of a pre-break concussion. Prust's prospective absence means the Canadiens may dip into their extremely deep pool of bottom six NHLers, likely to fish out a player like George Parros.
The Canadiens' opponents this evening, the Detroit Red Wings, had a couple of their players take advantage of the layoff as well. Johan Franzen, who was forced to forfeit his Olympic roster spot with Team Sweden, looks like a good bet for this evening's clash. In addition, Czech defenceman Jakub Kindl looks poised to make his return as well, slotting in on the Wings' second pair.
Of course, all of this is outweighed by the absence of two critical pieces. Stephen Weiss, a free agent pickup, was brought in to provide some secondary scoring on a Motor City squad that already has a few big guns at their disposal. His recovery from a sports hernia is taking longer than anticipated, however, and Weiss has taken a step back from pre-Olympic prognostications that had him returning for this evening's clash. Of greater concern is the absence of captain Henrik Zetterberg, who is hampered by a chronic back injury that he has dealt with for the better part of the last five years. After an early departure from Sochi, Zetterberg underwent a procedure to remove a herniated disc. For Detroit, the answer to the question of whether or not Zetterberg plays again this season can probably be answered at the same time that one determines whether or not Detroit qualifies for the playoffs.
All of this brings us to the most pertinent question of the moment: can the Habs handle an above average team, even when that team is depleted by injuries?
One month ago, the Red Wings answered that question emphatically, taking a 4-1 win over a listless Canadiens team. Zetterberg was in the lineup, but even without Pavel Datsyuk, the Wings were able outscore and out-possess Les Glorieux. The Canadiens being out-possessed was something of a trend at the time, as they took more shot attempts than their opponent only once in the thirteen games leading up to the break. As was the case before the Winter Games, the Habs will need their stars to compensate for the shortcomings created by the bottom of their roster and the system they're confined to.
Montreal will need Tomas Plekanec, energized from a stint alongside a top-flight scorer in Jaromir Jagr, to bring his momentum back to Quebec. They'll need Max Pacioretty, a scorer relegated even when his team couldn't score, to victimize the Red Wings' rearguards. They'll need P.K. Subban to find his world-class form, rested and hopefully free of the injuries that have seemed to nag at him for a good part of 2013-14. Most importantly, as has been the case all season, they're going to need their goaltender.
Tonight, it will be up to Peter Budaj to carry the team's flag, and to find a way to win even without the unbelievable defensive depth of most Olympic squads. The Slovak keeper, underwhelming in Russia, will have to manage without the goal support of a plethora of all star forwards. If the first three quarters of this season is any indication, he's also going to have to cope without elite coaching. Budaj may be the back-up goaltender, but with the way his team has played, he can't afford an off night. If the Canadiens get goaltending like the Canadians did, they may just have a chance to get their second half started right.