Canadiens vs Blackhawks preview

Richard Wolowicz

Entering the last week of the regular season, can the Habs stay one step ahead in the battle for home-ice?

The Montreal Canadiens are almost there.

Entering the final week of the 2013-14 season, the Canadiens' only unknown is whether they'll land in the East's second or third seed. With a win tonight, Les Glorieux could be a long way toward finding out.

Their standing in the Conference is final, in that the Habs will finish in a division seed and not a wildcard. With the CH emerging victorious over wildcard-leading Detroit on Saturday, Montreal is an insurmountable nine points clear of the Red Wings with four games remaining in their schedule. In fact, the Habs have deemed their playoff position comfortable enough to rest two stars in their third-to-last game of the season, as Carey Price and Andrei Markov will not participate in the first game Montreal's last back-to-back of the regular season.

With Price staying home, Peter Budaj will play what Canadiens fans are hoping is his last game of 2013-14. The Habs' back-up role was been staunch when not overworked, and will have his mettle tested one last time against a Blackhawks team that will surely contend in the rough Western Conference. Chicago has proven to be a tough matchup for the former Avs tender, as Budaj sports only a 4-5-1 record against the 'hawks. Averaging more than three goals against per game on an 89.6 save percentage over his career, Budaj will need to distance himself from his body of work to-date if he's to make a positive contribution this evening.

Injury complications in Illinois will should make Budaj's life a little easier, as the Blackhawks will be missing their twin superstar forwards as they rest in advance of the playoffs. Jonathan Toews left a game on March 30, while Patrick Kane left a March 19 contest. While both are skating, each has been ruled out of the rest of the regular season, creating some interesting injury symmetry between tonight's opponents.

While both squads are missing a pair of star players, a pair of regular defenders also have injury notes associated with them. Johnny Oduya, half of Chicago's shutdown pair with Swedish compatriot Niklas Hjalmarsson, has missed three games in a row, but is expected to suit up tonight. The Canadiens' Alexei Emelin, Markov's freight train of a partner, will be missing in tonight's action, as he takes a final opportunity to rest before Habs-Lightning kicks off next week.

With three Habs regulars out of the lineup, three spots in the lineup are open for players we haven't seen in a while. In addition to back-up keeper Budaj, tonight will also see the return of veteran Josh Gorges. Gorges broke his hand stopping a shot against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a feat of courage and coordination Gorges has displayed a penchant for over his career. Returning well-rested (presumably), and with a few lower priority games left before the stakes are raised. Gorges' timing on his return is as impeccable as one of his numerous shot blocks.

Tale of the Tape

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The third returnee to Montreal's lineup this evening is none other than former first rounder Nathan Beaulieu. Along with Jarred Tinordi, Beaulieu is considered to be among Montreal's brightest prospects, and is frequently regarded as the Habs best young player on the back-end. All things considered, Beaulieu should have been on the Habs' roster from the beginning of the season, but instead of spending the last two months tuning up for his first NHL playoff run, he lived instead a castaway on the desert island that is the moribund 2013-14 Hamilton Bulldogs. Now, with the season coming to a close, Beaulieu will get one last change to show that he belongs before the playoffs begin.

Andrei Markov has been a leader for the Habs all season, and while he can play at both ends, his playmaking ability will be especially missed With Emelin rounding into form of late, his hard-hitting style will make him conspicuous in his absence as well. There are two big gaps in the Habs' zone tonight.

Beaulieu's presence in what is a near-meaningless late season game isn't intended to directly replace either of those players. If Beaulieu can find a way to justify his presence in the the Canadiens lineup going forward, however, the Habs' might have just acquired a playoff defender versatile enough to fill both holes.

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