When the Montreal Canadiens stepped on to the Bell Centre ice to face the Washington Capitals on December 3, they were entering a battle for Eastern Conference supremacy. They knew they would be facing a team with significant offensive firepower, and a goaltender with a tendency to mercilessly deny his opponents.
A stumble against a team of Washington's calibre is typically not a matter of great concern. But what they could not have known, entering that game, was just how steep the decline was just beyond that well-fought loss.
It was this Washington team that kick-started Montreal's miserable December, with the tricolore having won only one of the ten games they've played in since losing three weeks ago. Over the course of those 60 minutes of hockey, the Habs went from a team coping well with moderate adversity to one in crisis. The nightmare scenarios associated with the loss of players like Brendan Gallagher and Carey Price manifested in front of all of us, and this frustrating slide was underway.
In closing his recap, Jared Book ominously observed that when Montreal outplays their opponent as they did on December 3, they're sure to win more games than they lose. Ten games later, it's finally time to prove that widely-accepted wisdom correct.
How to Watch
Start time: 7:00 PM ET
In Canada (French): TVAS
In Canada (English): CBC, CITY
In the Capitals region: CSN-DC
In the United States: NHLN-US
Elsewhere: NHL GameCenter, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
|53.9||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||51.0|
|1.08||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.38|
Know Your Enemy
The Capitals, like the Canadiens, have enjoyed a nice break since last playing on Monday. The recent similarities between these teams more or less end there.
Winners of seven of nine since knocking off the Habs, the Capitals have built the type of dominating lead in the conference that the Habs themselves once held. They're using the formula that propelled Montreal early in the season, combining a relentless attack with timely goaltending and reliable special teams.
Shooting over 8%, the Caps have averaged a healthy 3.3 goals per game over their last six games; all wins. Perhaps more importantly, their goaltending has been tremendous. With the exception of a December 18 clash with the Lightning, Braden Holtby has played out of his mind, with his typical level of performance coming much closer to Vezina than average. And even when Holtby faltered, in that game with the Bolts, Philipp Grubauer was able to take over and secure a Washington win. Throw in a powerplay that consistently ranks among the league's most efficient outfits, and you have the recipe for the type of dominant play put forth by the Capitals of late.
For a Canadiens squad that desperately needs some bounce to break their way, it doesn't look like it will get any easier tonight.
Last Time Out
The manner in which Montreal's last game with Washington set the tone for what was to come in the ten games that followed is uncanny.
Braden Holtby was sublime, allowing only a net-front play by Lars Eller and a Brian Flynn shorthanded breakaway past his goal line. That type of outstanding opposition goaltender has characterized Montreal's losing streak, as goaltenders have stopped about 95% of Montreal's shots at even strength.
Meanwhile, at the other end, Washington scored three goals in a number of creative ways. First, Tom Wilson made the Habs pay for a defensive zone turnover, capitalizing on Nathan Beaulieu's failure to connect with his supporting winger. Next, T.J. Oshie got credit for a deflection over Mike Condon's shoulder, creating the type of goal that happens about once a season, or once a night during Montreal's recent saga. And finally, Oshie engineered the game-winner, leveraging a near-unstoppable skill play in the form of a seeing-eye tip.
The Canadiens outshot, and largely outplayed, their opponents. Nonetheless, they came away empty. Tonight, however, that concept may be central to their chances of victory.
Despite their recent success in the standings, the Capitals have been consistently outshot since playing Montreal, and that regular deficit may be the type of chink in the armour that the Habs can exploit. Of course, that would require the Canadiens to bury their scoring chances, which has been too much to ask of late.
With the Christmas break over, the Habs have finally had a chance to relax and refocus. With this Canadiens team coming off a much-needed long winter's nap, maybe the best way to end the streak is just how it started.