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Canadiens at Red Wings: Game Preview

Pounded by the powerful Penguins, can Michel Therrien push the right buttons to give the Habs a chance against Detroit?

Francois Lacasse

It's been a long time since the Montreal Canadiens last played the Detroit Red Wings.

When these two teams last met, two years ago less a day, this was an inter-conference battle. The Red Wings, then captained by Future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, were on their way to another division title. Jonas Gustavsson was toiling as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, acting as the starting goalie while trying to fend off then-23-year-old James Reimer for starts. The Canadiens, on the other hand, were getting goals from Scott Gomez (occasionally) and Erik Cole, and helpers from Tomas Kaberle and Andrei Kostitsyn. A lot has changed.

Some things remain starkly similar, however.

The Habs started off the 2011-12 season playing excellent hockey, but losing the benefit of the bounces and consequently, a number of games. The trouble was compounded when a number of key players went down injured, and coach Jacques Martin was fired. An unfortunate situation was met with a panicky response, and the result was a manageable situation that quickly devolved into a freefall. A quality Montreal roster, only months removed from the longest Habs' playoff run in a generation, was deprived the opportunity to take another crack.

While the Habs remain high enough in the standings, they're following the same recipe that had them drafting 3rd overall in 2012. Frustratingly, however, the Habs aren't getting a top draft pick this season, and they probably aren't getting a playoff spot either. Even more frustrating is that this time, the damage is self-induced.

Pierre Gauthier's Habs may have made it to the East Finals, but Marc Bergevin's Habs of 2013-14 were easily the best Montreal Canadiens team of the new millenium. Seemingly blind to this reality, Bergevin fixed what wasn't broken, taking a young, deep, and talented roster and punching holes in it. This season, the primary problem hasn't been compounded by injuries, either - it's been compounded by coaching. Now, as the Habs sink closer and closer to what feels like inevitability, they get another chance to prove they can turn themselves around.

In order to do so, the Habs will have to find a way to manage a goal or two, and the man standing in their way is none other than the Monster himself, Gustavsson. While the Swedish netminder's play has been average to below average, he's still enjoying the best statistical year of his career, which may or may not have something to do with not having to play behind the Maple Leafs defence anymore. The Wings are a middle of the pack in terms of both scoring, defence, and possession, so the effort they get from the first of their two Olympian goalies may go along way to determining tonight's outcome.

How does a talented team like the Red Wings, well-coached and with reasonable goaltending, find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in? Like the Habs most recent opponents, the Wings have been torn apart by injuries, as only three of their top twelve forwards are yet to miss time with an injury this year. Tonight will be no different, as the list of injured Red Wings is nothing short of impressive. Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson, Johan Franzen, Stephen Weiss, Cory Emmerton, and Joakim Andersson are all in danger of missing this evening's tilt. Mike Babcock's crew has remained competitive despite the adversity, and players like point-per-game scorer Henrik Zetterberg remain dangerous. If the Habs are to earn themselves some breathing room in the playoff picture, however, they will get no better opportunity than tonight's.

When it's all said and done, the same factors that have determined the Habs success all season will determine tonight's result. Will it be Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz on the back-end, or Doug Murray and Francis Bouillon? Will George Parros skate in favour of a legitimate contributor? Without the benefit of last change, can Michel Therrien find a way to offset the Red Wings' strengths? Failing all of that, can Carey Price stand on his head, despite a workload that's gone from challenging to ridiculous?

The Canadiens are equipped to choose their own destiny. Maybe, tonight's game is akin to their last trip to Detroit, a pleasant vacation from a harrowing slide. Or maybe, it's just another floor down on the Habs ride toward the exit.