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Canadiens vs Penguins Preview

Starting their stretch run slowly against the Wings, can the Habs find a way to pick up their game against an Eastern Conference juggernaut?

A battle of Olympic proportions.
A battle of Olympic proportions.
Justin K. Aller

Less than 24 hours ago, the Canadiens managed to steal away one more point than they deserved. It was an old and tired story: the Canadiens' skaters, overwhelmed throughout the game, fell back on solid goaltending and opportunistic scoring to keep themselves around. As has often been the case, the Habs were unable to cheat two points out of an injured Red Wings squad. Tonight, they'll have to try to earn two against one of the league's best.

In their first game back from the Olympic layoff, the Habs looked sluggish to say the least. After a first period in which both teams looked like they were trying to find their legs, Detroit would take advantage of a powerplay opportunity and take a 1-0 lead. Then, instead of pushing back after the first intermission, Montreal seemed to be taken by surprise in the second period. Much like Mike Babcock was able to survey the landscape of the game and help Team Canada to take over as matches wore on, his Red Wings manhandled the Habs in the second period. Montreal managed only four shots on goal in the middle frame, and Detroit would continue to hold on to their lead. It wasn't until a final minute Brian Gionta miracle backhander that the Habs would even the score, giving them an undeserved single point.

In their quest to avenge some pre-Olympic defeats, the Canadiens are 0 for 1. Now, they're faced with a much greater challenge.

Sidney Crosby and Co. ran rampant over the Habs in mid-January. Close game possession is near-useless measure of that Penguins-Canadiens game, as Pittsburgh cracked the game open and ran away with it before Montreal knew what hit them. With two superstar offensive players, and a couple of other top-notch scoring wingers, the Penguins have more firepower than Montreal can defend with their current lineup configuration. In seasons past, the Habs might have lined up a couple of capable units and spread out to match-up with players like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Chris Kunitz. Unless there's a serious change of philosophy, it's difficult to imagine how Michel Therrien might accomplish that tonight.

Last time out, P.K. Subban was constantly on the move as he sought to keep pace with Crosby and Malkin. 76 would see plenty of the Penguins' twin weapons, and would generally hold his own despite being buried in defensive zone starts. Subban wasn't victimized by Crosby, but would enjoy front row seats on two goals on transition plays, where his partner, Andrei Markov, was turnstiled by his countryman Malkin.

While their stars hustled to stem the tide, the Canadiens lower tier players were left to mount the comeback. Sadly, even with soft competition and plenty of advantageous deployment, they proved woefully unable to do so. Max Pacioretty's trio, with David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher, were often backed by Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon that night, crippling Montreal's ability to try to score points when Pittsburgh wasn't icing their all-stars. Despite starting 85% of their shifts outside of the defensive zone, the pair were barely able to keep their heads above water on possession and never came close to pushing the puck forward to Montreal's most capable scoring line. The Habs spent all of their resources trying to contain Crosby and Malkin (and failed), and harpooned their only shot at equalizing by saddling their best offensive players with AHL-level support.

Last night, against another team with diverse offensive options, Therrien took another route. Against the Red Wings, Murray and his frequent partner, Jarred Tinordi, were put into hyper-defensive minutes against the Wings' third line. This strategy proved fruitless as well, as young up-and-comers Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar were made to look like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. The latter pair, of course, are the two players whose absence and injury, respectively, were supposed to give the Habs a better chance to win last night.

In the past few weeks, we've seen two different Michel Therrien game plans end with the same result. One of those games even came with the Habs' trump card, goaltender Carey Price, in the crease. With CP31 unavailable, we're about to see what a MT strategy looks like with no insurance policy to back it up. If past results tell us anything, Michel is going to have to get creative.