Eighteen days ago, the Montreal Canadiens flew into Minneapolis - St. Paul and took on of the toughest teams in the NHL.
With a number of high-end forwards, a Norris-candidate defenseman, and an outstanding goaltending tandem, the Wild were off to a 6-4-3 start not quite befitting of their impressive possession numbers and remarkable goaltending.
As it happened, the Canadiens couldn't quite manage the Wild on that night, as they were undone by the usual suspects - a patchwork fourth line, a suspect third defensive pair, and some difficult to understand coaching decisions. While the Canadiens top guns did their best to keep things close, even clawing their way into a tie midway through the third, the Habs would eventually fall when Jason Pominville snuck free at the side of the net and batted home the winner.
The Wild would use the momentum of their victory over the Habs as a springboard, as they've been on an absolute tear during the month of November. Minnesota has earned 15 of a possible 16 points going back to the Habs game, holding down third in the NHL's fenwick close standings and fifth in the NHL's hyper-competitive Western conference.
Josh Harding took the victory over Habs last time out, and he has continued his strong play since. Harding has an outstanding 12-2-2 record on the year, which pairs nicely with his .946 safe percentage. While it's likely unwarranted, Harding efforts have faulted him into the conversation for a spot on Canada's Olympic team, an impressive feat for a goaltender who was an afterthought as recently as last summer. While Minnesota has not named a starter as of this writing, Harding seems the likely candidate after back-up Niklas Backstrom was nicked up in a drive-by confrontation with the Toronto Maple Leafs Nazem Kadri.
Carey Price allowed an unsightly four goals when he last saw the Wild, he didn't receive a great deal of support from the teammates in front of him, either. In recent games, and for the most of the season, CP31 has been nigh-impenetrable, carrying a .936 save percentage into tonight's game. If Harding makes Team Canada, he'll almost certainly be playing behind the B.C.-born netminder. If the Habs are to win this evening, they'll almost certainly require an Olympic-calibre effort.
While the Habs goaltending has remained consistent all season long, a few things have changed since the Canadiens left the Land of 10 000 Lakes. No longer will be George Parros or Mike Blunden be featured on the fourth line, they of the 5% corsi when Montreal and Minnesota matched up last. Furthermore, Douglas Murray's services will likely not be required this evening, to be replaced by the staunch Alex Emelin. Emelin had a solid season debut against the Rangers on Saturday, one of very few bright spots in the Habs lineup on the weekend.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, winger Max Pacioretty is back in the lineup after missing out on his chance to play at the Xcel Energy Center earlier this year. Pacioretty, like many of his offensive teammates, are mired in a significant slump. Pacioretty's presence in the lineup gives the Canadiens three viable offensive lines, and will be key if the Habs are to finally breakout and show the prowess they demonstrated in the opposition's end last year.
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