The Montreal Canadiens have a tantalizing an opportunity: they can clinch the season series against their foremost rival whilst the season is barely one-third complete. Due to extenuating circumstances, however, getting a third win over the Boston Bruins may be more difficult than getting the first two was.
With the recent change in Boston's status on the NHL totem pole, descending from the likes of a NHL super-heavyweight to their current standing as merely a good team, combined with Montreal's continued Stanley Cup aspirations, the emotional tenor of this year's first two Habs-Bruins games felt different than previous match-ups. Tonight, that appears set to change.
The Canadiens enter their third clash with the Bruins, and the two teams' final battle before the Winter Classic, having lost two straight games in regulation for only the second time this season. They've strung together a series of a less-than-convincing efforts against less-than-overwhelming opponents recently, and while their lead in the Atlantic Division remains impressive, the urgency surrounding the team's performance is growing.
The Habs need this game, but it won't come easy. As usual, there is no team in the NHL who would take more satisfaction in denying Montreal a win than the Canadiens' opponent tonight.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
|53.7||Score-Adjusted Corsi %||49.9|
|1.34||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.18|
Know Your Enemy
The smothering Bruins defence of the earliest part of this decade may be a thing of the past, but in its place has developed a new weapon: an absolutely lethal powerplay.
Boston is shooting the lights out with the man advantage, and finding the back of the net on almost one-third of their powerplay opportunities. While its' 20% shooting may be unsustainable over the course of an 82-game season, there is substance to back-up their runaway success.
The best example of Boston's dominance at 5v4 may also be the most recent, as the Bruins carved up the Predators' pitiful penalty kill in record time on Monday night. A face-off victory in the offensive zone led to four consecutive cross-ice passes, and culminated with an effortless net-front tap-in by Loui Eriksson. The Habs' kill is in a different league than Nashville's, but there remains a moral to this story: the Canadiens must maintain their disciplined positioning, and stop the Bruins from using the middle of the ice they way they did at will earlier this week.
Of course, if the Bruins powerplay is a menacing storm cloud, Montreal's opportunism while shorthanded may be the silver lining. The Habs lead the league in scoring while down a man, and the quick transitions their PK unit has become famous for will be even more important tonight. That unexpected source of offence, combined with Montreal's relative cleanliness of play compared to a Boston team averaging about 1.5 more penalties per game than they are, may be a winning strategy in neutralizing the Bruins' greatest weapon.
Last Time Out
The Habs have fallen victim to the Bruins powerplay in each of the two games contested by these teams so far, but with a pair of 4-2 victories to show for their efforts, it hasn't hurt Montreal badly just yet. The Canadiens have beaten Boston in each month of the NHL season so far, and Mike Condon's talents were on full display in the latter game. Making 29 saves while allowing only two goals to the visiting team, Condon succumbed only to a seeing-eye tip off the stick of Eriksson, while also participating in Montreal's all too frequent ritual of providing young opposition players their first NHL goal. In this case, the beneficiary was Frank Vatrano, who should see time on Boston's fourth line this evening.
The third line may have a bit of a different look, as two new players have seen time there recently. With David Pastrnak, who terrorized the Habs in October, spending time in sick bay along with Chris Kelly, Landon Ferraro and Tyler Randell have drawn in of late. Both players have been unceremoniously drilled on possession, and whether it is they or some alternative, like Jimmy Hayes, who draws into the Bruins' bottom-six, the Canadiens' depth will offer them a chance to get ahead at even strength for the third straight game.
Montreal has the tools to put a stop to a powerplay unit that few teams have slowed down so far this year. If they can do that, and make good on their apparent advantages at even strength, the Habs will be well-positioned to earn a win that's feeling more and more significant.