Canadiens vs Islanders preview

Bruce Bennett

Can the Habs handle a team that's trending up, or will the Islanders play spoiler?

The New York Islanders' season is over.

It's been over for months now. For all the optimism that surrounded the team after their playoff run last year, consistent success never materialized. Sensing that his team wasn't competing, General Manager Garth Snow made a bold early season move, dealing Matt Moulson and some valuable draft picks to acquire Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres. Unfortunately, even acquiring one of the league's better forwards wasn't enough to jumpstart the hapless Isles, and as the calendar flipped to 2014, the boys from Uniondale found themselves well outside the playoff picture.

Of course, with half a season to play, anything can happen. No team likes to see the transition from skill-based optimism to probability-based justification happen before Christmas, but one could have argued that an outside chance the the playoffs still existed. Well, that hope was snuffed out when Canadian Olympian and Islanders Star John Tavares suffered a lower body injury in Sochi, ending his season prematurely. The Isles were officially out.

On March 5, their season came full circle. With time running out on trade deadline day, and high-paying bidders not exactly lining up, the Canadiens and Marc Bergevin swooped in and snapped up the Austrian dynamo. Snow cut his losses, tremendous as they were, and turned his focus toward another reload on Long Island.

Then, a funny thing happened. Minus the stalwarts of any recent success, including Tavares, Moulson, and the man Moulson was dealt for, Vanek, the Islanders started playing better hockey. An upward trend was underway as the trade deadline passed, but somehow, a near-anonymous lineup has kept up the positive play. In fact, over 11 of the Isles' last 15 games, New York has come out in the black on possession. In the absence of any type of serviceable goaltending option (their committee of keepers ranges from poor to Pavelec in productivity), the success in the standings has still proven elusive. With the focus on 2014-15, however, maybe this means that the Isles have fewer holes to fill than they though.

Tale of the Tape

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What does this mean for the Habs, and for tonight?

After a string of a couple of games in which the Habs won without earning the territorial advantage, the Canadiens managed to push the play well against an undermanned Blackhawks squad. Like the Islanders tonight, Chicago without Kane and Toews is not quite a barometer of a team's true play. That said, you can only play the cards you're dealt, and it would serve the Habs well to show that they can build up some momentum against a weaker squad, especially with a handful of important players returning to the Montreal lineup this evening.

In the next few days, as the NHL pares down the field of Stanley Cup contenders and the playoffs begin, winning each series is about to become the league's only focus. With a season series sweep on the line in the penultimate game of their 2013-14 regular season, and the Islanders ready to start their vacation early, the Habs might as well get started early, too.

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