After months of anticipation, the 2014-15 NHL season is finally underway. For the Montreal Canadiens, it went pretty darn well.
Overcoming a slow start, the Habs began to overrun the Toronto defenses as the game progressed, ending the game with an impressive advantage in puck possession. The Canadiens' ostensible first line, centred by David Desharnais, showed some impressive chemistry in their first outing together, dominating Toronto to the tune of 80% Fenwick close. Max Pacioretty, in particular, was a buzz saw, using his speed and reach to confound Toronto's defenders. Whether it was pyloning Dion Phaneuf, or manhandling the Leafs' powerplay, Patches was the force the Canadiens need him to be, on Wednesday night. Until Eller-Bourque-Sekac gains some offensive traction, which may not be long, the Habs are going to have to rely on their top six to produce.
On the opposite side of the ledger, there were a couple of examples of Canadiens early season jitters that the Habs will seek to sort out tonight. P.K. Subban and Alexei Emelin, the pair often backing 67-51-15, were part of the massacre inflicted on the Maple Leafs top line, but they definitively didn't jive together as first pair on their first attempt. The pair often assumed conflicting positions, including two particularly visible examples. On one, highlighted on the Sportsnet broadcast, Emelin failed to take a position that would allow Subban to give him the puck and change. On another, both players gravitated to the same side on a Leafs rush, leading to a scrambling recovery. It's tough to argue with the results, but the Canadiens will need the chemistry between those two to improve if they're to survive as a pair.
The Habs fourth line also found themselves in a little bit of trouble, icing the the puck on a couple of occasions and generally finding themselves in an uphill battle. They were bailed out by Manny Malholtra's uncanny (and welcome) face-off acumen, but given Montreal's forward depth, the Habs should be able to push the play with their fourth line. If the same combination plays tonight and struggles, it may mean an opportunity for Travis Moen or Michael Bournival to rotate in.
Tale of the Tape
Habs stats are from last night; Capitals stats are from 2013-14. It won't happen again, or at least not for a year.
Know Your Enemy
Barry Trotz and Co. made a few changes over the off-season, mostly focusing on improving Washington's defensive depth. There's a conversation to be had about whether Matt Niskanen, and especially Brooks Orpik, are worth the boatload of money that was tossed their way, but the Capitals on-ice product should be improved. Niskanen and Orpik join veterans Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Mike Green, to form a respectable blue line. The Capitals probable 6th defenseman, Dmitry Orlov, is on the mend, and will likely be replaced by John Erskine. Orlov's return should solidify Washington's defensive depth, and will allow him to continue on his personal development path toward becoming the next Sergei Zubov.
Unfortunately for the fans in the U.S. capitol, Brian MacLellan was not able to make similar improvements up front. After finally patching one of the team's most critical holes, the Capitals have apparently tired of having a competent second line centre, allowing Mikhail Grabovski to leave without really replacing him. Grabovski was one of the team's best possession players, while tossing in 0.6 PPG. The team has graduated promising youngsters Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky into the lineup, but whether either of them can even approximate Grabovski's productivity remains to be seen.
Last Time Out
Since we already discussed the beat-down that the Caps laid on the Habs toward the end of last year (in the pre-season preview, that is, let's focus on that pre-season game, instead.
The Canadiens iced a young lineup, and while their had their chances, they were unable to crack the Caps' goaltending platoon. Tonight, with a full contingent taking the ice for both sides, the game should have a different complexion. With the fast-paced, skilled style that the Habs exhibited last night, look for Montreal to get the goal (and more) that they couldn't find in the pre-season.
The game will be carried on TV by Sportsnet 360, RDS and CSN-DC.