The Canadiens have had tough week.
They started their trip to the American Southwest with a bout against the NHL's best possession team, the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings lived to their reputation as a tough out, grinding down the Habs and emerging with a 2-1 victory.
Next, it was on to the Anaheim Ducks, a similarly strong team who takes care of their business in a different manner than LA. The Ducks's possession numbers are not as imposing as Los Angeles's, but their top-end talent is rarely surpassed across the league. The Habs put forth a superb effort, driving play toward the Ducks' end and surviving some fluky bounces en route to a shootout victory.
Most recently, it was the Phoenix Coyotes, a squad on the fringe of the Western Conference playoff picture that found the Habs on the back-end of a back-to-back. The Coyotes are team with depth and possession prowess similar to the Ducks, but without the high-quality weapons along the lines of Perry and Getzlaf. Nevertheless, the Coyotes dominated the Habs when it mattered, losing ground only during a second period when the Habs got four powerplays, including a two man advantage. The 'yotes are not a strong group on special teams, but ultimately, their even strength dominance got them the win.
Tonight, the Habs are moving to the final leg of their four game western swing, and it's shaping up to be the most challenging. The Sharks embody many of the qualities that made the Habs previous opponents daunting, starting with their possession game. The Kings superlative Fenwick close of 56% puts them at the top of the league table, but the Sharks are almost equally productive at 54.9%. The difference is inconsequential, really, as both figures are indicative of teams that are likely to enjoy significant success.
Where the Sharks differentiate from the Kings is in their top-end scoring talent. Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter are not to be confused with third line grinders, but the Sharks plethora of talent among their top six forwards is absurd. Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Thornton are all over fifty points, a milestone that only Kopitar can match on LA's roster. Another forward, Logan Couture, would almost certainly be there if not for an injury that cost him a quarter of his season. At 5v5, the Sharks have scored 132 goals, compared to only 96 for the Kings and 99 for the Habs. The Kings and Sharks both play the type of oppressive hockey that makes their opponents lives miserable, but for the Sharks, that play usually culminates with the puck in the back of the net.
Adding to the challenge tonight is a recent run of poorer play for back-up goaltender Peter Budaj. The Slovak keeper has been solid all season, but with a much greater workload in the recent absence of workhorse Carey Price, Budaj has begun to falter. Prior to the Olympics, Budaj offered up a quality start about two-thirds of the time, but since he's been moved into a full-time role, Budaj has offered up only one in five attempts. The Canadiens have yet to prove that they can win consistently despite their goaltending, and while their recent reinforcements have sparked a great deal of optimism, there's still no reason to think that the Habs will win tonight without some better support from their probable starter.
Fortunately for Montreal, Antti Niemi has experienced struggles of his own lately. The Sharks goaltender has posted a .887 save percentage over his last five starts, a drop-off from the .911 standard he's set for the season, not to mention his career average of .916. Niemi pitched a shutout on 22 Montreal shots when these two teams met back in October, and if there were ever a time for the Habs to prove that their new and improved top 9 is ready to score, tonight is that night.
The Canadiens have suffered from inconsistency and fatigue at times of late, but tonight, it's time that they put it all together. When your opponent can skate, shoot, and score like the Sharks, the Habs are going to have to show they're ready to do the same.