As the Montreal Canadiens left the Bell Centre on Thursday evening, they did so having achieved the goal they set out to earlier that day.
With first place on the line, the Habs needed two points and a Tampa Bay loss to take sole possession of the Eastern Conference crown. The Lightning held up their end of the bargain, crumbling against a a tough St. Louis Blues team. But while the standings may tell you that the Habs made good on their end of the deal, too, any observer of Montreal's contest with the Edmonton Oilers would tell you that the opposite is true.
The Habs level of play was such that the Oilers actually looked competent by comparison, prompting a steady stream of commentary from Sportsnet's Jason York on how fast and disciplined the last-place Oil looked against their supposedly under-matched adversaries. With two impressive skill plays, including a laser-guided wrister from Christian Thomas and a nice dash and pass from P.K. Subban to Alex Galchenyuk, the Canadiens looked like they might be queuing up a blowout. Pathologically unable to play with a lead, however, the Habs sat back. From Montreal's second goal on, Edmonton would take 19 more shot attempts than the Habs, and without the team's pre-eminent superstar to bail them out, the Canadiens would end up sacrificing a very accessible point.
Tonight, the Canadiens get the opportunity to cushion their lead in the conference standings against one of their poorest divisional counterparts. With the bright lights of the Hockey Night in Canada cameras on them, the Habs should seek to avoid making the Leafs look like anything more than a team simply playing out the thread.
How to Watch
Start time: 7:00 PM ET
In Canad (French): TVA
In Canada (English): CBC
In the U.S.: NHLN-US
Elsewhere: NHL GameCenter, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
|49.0||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||45.5|
|1.20||5v5 Goal Ratio||0.86|
Know Your Enemy
Going by score-adjusted Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts), there are currently ten teams that have poorer possession numbers than the Canadiens. These teams are, by and large, also-rans. None of them has the impenetrable defence system that guards the Habs' net, and without that advantage, none is particularly close to a playoff position.
Since the start of calendar 2015, through some act of scheduling benevolence, the Habs have played eight of their 17 games against this worst third of the league, including five of their last six. Unfortunately, the Canadiens have saved some of their worst performances for their worst opponents, earning only 7 of the 12 points available during this less difficult stretch, with six of those points coming against the strongest teams in the sample.
On paper, this stretch doesn't get any harder with the Toronto Maple Leafs in town. 24 points back of the Habs, the Leafs are firmly in sell mode, with rumours swirling around everyone from Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson to Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel.
Any deal involving Phaneuf consummated in the immediate future would be made more complicated by the defender's hand injury. Phaneuf has been on the IR while recovering, and looks set to remain there for at least another week. Joffrey Lupul's status is uncertain as well, as the winger has been given time off to address a nagging injury.
Meanwhile, Toronto's most dangerous player remains healthy, but finds himself in the news for other reasons. Cited for a lack of productivity, the oft-criticized winger has found his ice-time cut, and was even made to play in the bottom-six for a spell. This treatment has led the Toronto Sun to continue their proud journalistic tradition of finding novel ways to criticize the team's best players, even when those players are tracking toward 70 point seasons.
Ultimately, these Leafs look a lot like previous iterations of the Toronto franchise, in which good production from the top line and strong goaltending is undermined by a terminal lack of depth and structure. It's a model that has not been successful in some time, and finally, it looks as though reality has set in.
Last Time Out
Tonight marks the second of four Habs-Leafs games on this season's schedule, and to find the first match-up, one has to go back all the way to opening night.
The game marked the first broadcast under the new Rogers deal, and was notable for all sorts of non-hockey reasons. The tilt set a viewership record for Sportsnet, buoyed by the collective hopes and dreams of hockey fans wishing only for morsels of talent and professionalism in the broadcasting of their favourite pastime. That ambitious hope has since been crushed, but in consolation, the fancy camera angles remain.
On the ice, the first game of the season looked a lot like we had remembered. The Leafs carried the run of play early, but Max Pacioretty got the game's first goal. The Habs would then get in a little trouble, giving up their first goal of the season on a Brandon Kozun shot tipped by Nazem Kadri. Kozun left that game looking like he might position himself for a break-out rookie campaign, but has since played only five more games in the big leagues this year. While the Leafs battle their Montreal rivals tonight, Kozun will travel to Binghamton with the AHL's Toronto Marlies.
Pushed behind by a P.K. Subban goal, the Leafs would knot things up at three when Mike Santorelli banged the puck in from the goal-mouth. Then, just as the game looked destined for the extra frame, Tomas Plekanec ensured it would not get there, banking in the winner in the game's final minute.
Whether it's February 2015, October 2014, or October 2013, for that matter, the Habs have proven that their success comes only when their star players are at their superlative best. Tonight, we only ask that the players that have carried them all year long remain fit to continue.