The Montreal Canadiens are starting to look like we thought they would.
Rebounding from an early season slump, the Habs fenwick close has climbed back over 50% (actually, it's been there for a little bit now), and the Habs have played three possession-positive games in four relatively challenging games. Some of the offensive players the Habs rely on, including Max Pacioretty, Daniel Briere, and David Desharnais, appear to be emerging from hibernation, and the healthy Habs are approximating the Eastern contender many fans envisioned this summer.
Tonight, those prospective contenders will take on a team that already knows where they stand.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are tied for first in the Eastern conference, which must be becoming familiar after they spent most of last year there as well. The Penguins are led by the Best Player in the World, Sidney Crosby, and unlike the Habs most recent opponents, Pittsburgh has some depth to back him up, too. While Crosby centres Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, the Pens' second line features one of the only men on earth who could seek to mount a challenge on Crosby's title. That man is Evgeni Malkin, the indomitable centre, whose slick scoring skills form half of a frightening duo with sniper James Neal. In our recap of last night's game, Arik mentioned that the Canadiens were able to use the line of Plekanec-Gionta-Briere as a sort of loss leader, taking the hit against the Ovechkin line to free up the rest of the Habs to do some damage. Tonight, that challenge will be double.
After a 7-6 barnburner last March, many Habs fans may remember a Pittsburgh group that scored in bunches while struggling at the other end. These Penguins are not those 2012-2013 Penguins, however. The Pens made an interesting acquisition in the offseason, picking up former Habs bench boss Jacques Martin to assist Dan Bylsma with his team's defensive game. While it's tough to say exactly what Martin's impact has been only 23 games in, the early returns look as though he's revamped Pittsburgh's defensive game.
This season's Penguins are allowing GA/60 at a similar rate to last year's, but they're doing so with only league average goaltending. Last year's regular season Penguins enjoyed the fourth best even strength goaltending in the league, as measured by save percentage, while this year's ranking has dropped to 23rd in that category. While no team can afford the type of collapse that Marc-Andre Fleury and his defensive teammates have become notorious for, this early-season defensive consistency is a likely indicator that Pittsburgh's defence is much more stable than in seasons passed.
Speaking of Fleury, his overall numbers are flattering so far, as he has 13-6 record, .924 save percentage, and is allowing fewer than two goals per game. Fleury has been a big part of PIttsburgh's fourth-ranked penalty kill, as his performance there has counteracted the fact that Pittsburgh has allowed numerous shots against while down a man. The Canadiens, owners of one of the top-ranked powerplay units, will hope to the team that can finally put an end to Fleury's hot special teams play to start the year.
Having enjoyed a well-deserved break last night, the Canadiens will play Carey Price this evening. Despite a .935 save percentage, Price is only 8-8-2 so far, a record which does not befit his status as the Habs' best player to-date. With the aforementioned Penguins offensive depth, Price will almost certainly be counted on to offset an inevitable mismatch with one of Pittsburgh's top-flight weapons.
For news and analysis from out Pennsylvanian cousins, including an argument for why Crosby running mate Chris Kunitz should be playing Sochi, head over to PensBurgh.
More from Eyes On The Prize:
- Game Recap: What's old is new again
- Highlights and postgame comments from the Habs' win over Washington
- Getting to know Christian Thomas
- The H does not stand for Habs
- Dive Files: October's best
- Ears on the Prize Episode 11: Podcast