For the first time this season, there is palpable tension around the Montreal Canadiens.
It isn't the sting of failure, or apprehension over the team's playoff chances. In fact, there has been nothing but success in the mecca of hockey, and that success means that only a monumental collapse could threaten Montreal's playoff aspirations.
The team has held up without two of its pillars for three games, claiming five of the six points available to them and stretching their lead on their nearest divisional opponent to an absurd 11 points. Even without Brendan Gallagher, the Canadiens were able to maintain some semblance of the four well-defined lines that carried them through the first quarter of the season.
But even with the team flying high as they await the Washington Capitals, the energy feels nervous. That consistency, such as it was, appears to be going away.
In what is ostensibly a bid to energize a league-leading offence that managed only eight goals in its' last three games, Michel Therrien has mixed up his lines. Most notable is the return of last year's favourite "first" line, featuring Max Pacioretty alongside David Desharnais and Dale Weise. That leaves Tomas Plekanec with Tomas Fleischmann and Paul Byron, Brian Flynn with Devante Smith-Pelly and Christian Thomas, and allows the Alex Galchenyuk group to remain static.
The team's considerable talent remains well-distributed in this configuration, but the roles that characterized each trio to-date have vanished. The power-on-power dynamic likely disappears, as none of the new forward lines can match-up with the league's best as well as the old 67-14-11 line did. The exploitation line is gone too, as no coach is going to allow a group that includes Max Pacioretty to face the bottom of his lineup.
We saw something approximating this concept last season, and for the most part, it failed to do anything more than allow Carey Price the opportunity to play his way into the Vezina Trophy. Without Price as an insurance policy, the results may turn grim quickly.
In many ways, though, this team has proven itself to be much different than last year's. Tonight, this season's grand experiment begins, in some of the harsher conditions the NHL has to offer.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
|53.5||Score-Adjusted Corsi %||53.2|
|1.44||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.30|
Know Your Enemy
While the Canadiens seem to be experiencing something new everyday, the Washington Capitals are finally settling into more of a routine. With only one injury (defender Brooks Orpik) to report, the Capitals have enjoyed consistent line combinations for their past three games.
With Nicklas Backstrom returning from offseason surgery, the Caps' dynamic duo is restored. T.J. Oshie rounds out a legitimately dangerous first line, and the solid top-three pushes the revelatory Evgeny Kuznetsov to the second line.
Centering Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, Kuznetsov's trio has taken some of the scoring burden off of Alex Ovechkin, and helps to power one of the league's best offences. Combined with the efforts of star goaltender Braden Holtby, the Capitals are an excellent candidate to stand as Montreal's best competition in the Eastern Conference.
Not unlike the New York Rangers, Montreal's most recent suitor for the title of "best competition in the East," however, there's something not quite right. The Capitals have been on a steady possession decline since their near 58% peak in mid-October, with their most recent efforts coming in at around 50%, score-adjusted.
The Capitals have continued to thrive in the standings, winning their last five games against mostly poor competition, but like the Canadiens' tour through the metro, one might have expected a more convincing body of work from this supposed powerhouse.
The match-up is set, and in the shadow of the asterisk denoting Montreal's injuries, the conference hierarchy is about to be decided.
Last Time Out
The Canadiens defeated the Capitals twice last season, but couldn't manage a third victory. In a battle of the two Hart Trophy front-runners, Ovechkin and Carey Price, the Capitals enjoyed an uncharacteristically poor performance from the Habs' star keeper, and got a shootout win for their trouble.
Ovechkin himself struck twice, including one sublime effort in which he singlehandedly blitzed the Habs' D before shelfing the puck past Price. Not to be outdone, P.K. Subban scored a goal and two assists, helping the Habs to survive into extra time.
Of course, the game may not have gone that far were it not for an abysmal performance on the penalty kill. Washington converted on three of four chances, allowing them to make-up for the fact that they posted only 14 shots at even strength.
The Canadiens have found a way to survive, and even thrive, without Carey Price so far. If they can find a way to limit the Capitals at even strength again this evening, and mitigate the damage on the penalty kill, they'll have a great opportunity to keep racking up points in the standings.