It's a good time to be a Montreal Canadiens fan.
The team is more talented than they have been in decades. Even better, the team is sustaining its success for weeks at a time, and not just the single games or periods by which success could have been measured previously. This is not a flawless team, but when a combination of perpetual effort and flashes of dominance push a team to first place, it can be difficult to find a reason to complain.
This week, all of that is put to the test. A challenging weekend back-to-back puts the Habs up against a plucky New York Rangers team, and a Boston Bruins squad that will be out for revenge. Before that, the Canadiens host the St. Louis Blues, a talented and truculent team that has owned Montreal over the past few years.
Hindsight will tell us how this week compares to, say, a springtime swing through California, but for now, this week will certainly be in contention for the toughest of the Habs season.
If the Canadiens are the team they think they are, they will need to prove they can handle teams like those on the docket over the next six days. That begins tonight, with the Metro-leading Pittsburgh Penguins.
How to Watch
Start time: 7:30 PM ET
In Quebec: RDS
In Eastern Canada: Sportsnet East
Elsewhere: NHL GameCenter, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
|49.32||Fenwick Close %||57.14|
|1.13||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.62|
Know Your Enemy
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There are a few Penguins that everyone knows about. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain as dangerous as ever, and each player is again a top ten scorer league-wide. Slick defenceman Kris Letang is also back, recovering from a scary medical problem to pot nine powerplay points through his first sixteen games. And while his value to the team is questionable, new Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has made a commitment to Marc-Andre Fleury, signing the goaltender for four year and $22.5 million.
Those four players are at the heart of the Pens, and have been for some time, but it's been Rutherford's summer moves that seem to have propelled Pittsburgh back to the dominant status seemingly lost for a couple of years. Gone over the off-season were sniper James Neal, playmaking defenceman Matt Niskanen, and the tough, but overrated, Brooks Orpik.
On the back-end, Rutherford took advantage of Christian Ehrhoff's defection from Buffalo to sign the reliable German defender. While Ehrhoff has had a tough start to the year, but given his talent and track record, he's almost certain to rebound. Simon Despres has also ascended, after getting his feet wet in 34 games last year.
Perhaps most importantly, Rutherford brought in Patric Hornqvist, the most proven asset received in the Neal deal. Hornqvist was the rare player who scored thirty goals while playing under Barry Trotz's conservative Nashville system, but his propensity for rebound clean-up has made him an immediate threat as Crosby's new linemate. If there's anything the Penguins didn't need, it's more firepower, but Hornqvist appears to be the long sought after bookend for Pittsburgh's top line.
Last Time Out
The thing that victimized the Canadiens last time out could be a threat this time out, too.
The Penguins scored five powerplay goals in three games against the Habs last year, and the man advantage is rolling again to start this year. Capitalizing at an absurd rate of 32%, the Penguins have scored more than a powerplay goal per game so far. Those numbers stand in stark contrast to the Canadiens' early season struggles in that department, and highlight a need for the Habs to generate some offence of their own to keep things close.
Luckily, Montreal was able to do just that when these two teams last met. The Habs survived three different deficits, going blow for blow with the Pens and eventually earning a 6-5 win via shootout. Tonight, the Habs will need more than a late-game tying goal from Daniel Briere if they wish to surprise Pittsburgh. With the way the team is playing right now, however, it may be the Penguins who are in for the surprise.