One month ago, the Montreal Canadiens visited the Toronto Maple Leafs. Previewing the game and thinking about Montreal's season, I wrote that the Habs were on their way to becoming their opponents. Most Canadiens fans would find the very concept of becoming more like one of their team's most hated rivals naturally revolting, but this phenomenon goes deeper than that.
The Canadiens may not be moving to the Southwest, or adding more blue to the Sainte Flanelle, but they are starting to exhibit some Leaf-like symptoms. Hollowing out their depth with useless player acquisitions? Check. Disavowing puck possession in favour of, "systems that work?" Check. Doing so with an impenetrable sense of ignorance? One month later, it looks like we can safely say that the transformation is nearly complete.
The Montreal Canadiens sit 3rd in the Eastern Conference, despite sitting only four teams from the bottom of the league's Fenwick close rankings. The Habs are sporting a to-date goal differential of +6, equal to the performance of those high-powered Ohio contenders, the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 1st, 2nd, and 4th place teams, meanwhile, offer goal differentials of +47, +50, and +22, respectively.
While the Leafs are keeping themselves afloat with some opportunistic scoring and a dangerous transition game, the Canadiens are doing it by dumping the puck at every opportunity, and utterly relying on their goaltending when the puck does head toward their net. Carey Price hasn't yet returned from his Goaltender-of-the-Tournament performance at the Winter Olympics, but when he has been in the Canadiens' crease, the puck has typically stopped there. In Price's intermittent absence, Peter Budaj has enjoyed the best season of his career. Now, with C3P1 out for at least one more night, the Habs will have to rely on their Slovak back-up to buoy them to another pair of points.
If Budaj is to do so, he'll have to slow down the aforementioned Leafs snipers. James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel ran rampant at the Olympics, with Kessel claiming best forward honours for the entire tournament. While the transition from Olympic linemate and San Jose Shark Joe Pavelski to Toronto centre Tyler Bozak might not be quite as smooth as Randy Carlyle would have you believe, Toronto's star wingers are still exceptionally dangerous. Assuming that the offensively-stunted Habs don't have too many 6-5 games in them, it would pay for them to ensure the Leafs' top line remains contained. That is, unless Kessel gets traded first.
The Leafs may have one of the league's most potent offenses, but their goaltending is none too poor, either. Jonathan Bernier continues to enjoy the starting job in Toronto, and has emerged as the goalie that the Leafs thought they were getting when they dealt Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens to acquire him last summer. Much like the Habs' current back-up, the Los Angeles Kings' former back-up has been excellent in Toronto, posting a .934 even strength save percentage in his 45 starts this season.
So, if the Leafs have solid, top-end forwards, and a great goalie, how do the Habs beat them? As usual, the key is to put pressure on the bottom of the Leafs' roster.
Against Pittsburgh, Montreal got a dominant performance out of an unorthodox fourth line. Daniel Briere, Travis Moen, and George Parros laid a beating on the Pens' line of Craig Adams, Joe Vitale, and Taylor Pyatt. It remains to be seen if this trio can play well two games in a row, but if they can, the bottom of the Leafs forward corps is so abysmal. If Ryan White or Brandon Prust can shake recent absence and sub-in for Parros, the Canadiens' advantage would be even greater.
Just like Toronto, the Habs have some extremely high-quality players at the top of their roster, and some question marks below. If Montreal's depth players can take the game to Toronto's, the Canadiens' top six should be able to hang tough with Toronto's and help Montreal win the possession game.
Of course, if either team fails to take more shot attempts than their opponent, they do have other options. As both teams know well, sitting back, hanging on, and hoping for a miracle seems to work pretty well, too.