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Canadiens at Leafs: Game Preview

Coming off their worst game of the season, can the Habs reap the benefits of their roster changes and beat Toronto?

Richard Wolowicz

The Toronto Maple Leafs take a lot of heat.

Of course, sometimes they make themselves an easy target. For the last season and a half and beyond, the Leafs have been consistently outshot, game in and game out. As is generally accepted, these results are typically not conducive to long-term success. When your opponent spends more time in your end that you do in theirs, it becomes that much more challenging to score more goals than they do.

Despite this disadvantage, the Buds have managed to keep themselves afloat. They compensated in a number of ways, such as the goaltending of James Reimer, Ben Scrivens, and now Jonathan Bernier. They've enjoyed some opportunistic scoring, as well, getting good production from a top six full of shooting talent the likes of Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk, and Joffrey Lupul. They've enjoyed some consistent success on special teams, as well, where in their case, the powerplay has allowed them to begin to make up for what they lack at even strength.

So, how does all of this add up to make them the target of so many hockey predictors overrated lists? How have they become the what not to do of so many posts, articles, and rants discussed in the frame of fancy stats?

Perhaps some of it has to do with their apparent comfort with their formula. Star winger Lupul, for example, has publicly stated his disbelief in the predictive powers of NHL possession. Head coach Randy Carlyle seems to range somewhere between a disregard for numbers and blissful ignorance of their value. The Toronto Maple Leafs, the sum of their talent and systems, get outshot every night, and they like it that way.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

No, the Canadiens have not made some of the grievous financial and personnel errors that the Leafs have recently. No, the Canadiens do not have the seasons-long track record of adherence to a possession-averse system of hockey that the Leafs have. Nonetheless, the Canadiens are starting to look more and more like tonight's opponents.

Over-reliance on strong goaltending? Check. Surviving mostly on the talents of a few, exceptionally talented, skaters? Check. A coach who perpetuates a system that fails to get the most out of his roster? Check.

Now, coming off what was easily the worst game of the Canadiens season, they have to find a way to do things differently. For the first time in a long time, there's evidence that they might be considering doing so.

Welcoming Joonas Nattinen and Nathan Beaulieu to the Canadiens lineup allows them to present a different dynamic.

On defence, it's a simple matter of ability. The Canadiens have spent the majority of the season dressing one of Francis Bouillon and Douglas Murray in their third defensive pairing, and sometimes, frighteningly, both at the same time. Nathan Beaulieu opens up a number of opportunities.

While it isn't immediately clear who will leave the lineup to make space the Canadiens former first rounder, a realistic situation may include Raphael Diaz and Douglas Murray sitting out. That would leave, in theory, the Canadiens with three pairs that can skate, and no easily located weak point. It also gives the Habs options on their sputtering powerplay, which generally consists of P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, and thirty seconds of ineptitude. Beaulieu is skilled and creative, and while coming back to the NHL game will certainly be cause for adjustment, he represents a definite upgrade on any other current option.

Meanwhile, Joonas Nattinen joins the fourth line up front, perhaps at the expense of George Parros. While it remains to be seen if Therrien would be comfortable icing a goonless lineup against a team that dresses Colton Orr nightly, a best case scenario there would see Nattinen join Travis Moen and Brandon Prust, forming a unit that should offer the Habs an advantage over Toronto's near useless fourth trio.

For the first time since Douglas Murray joined the Canadiens lineup earlier this season, these two young players symbolize a glimmer of hope that Habs management recognizes some of what they need to change to make their cluba better team.

Tonight, we'll find out if those changes can help the Habs beat the team they're starting to resemble.