Prior to Friday's games, there were a NHL record six teams tied in the Presidents' Trophy race. Starting Friday night just one point back of that group, the New York Islanders would like to prove they belong as part of that group.
Much of the evidence available would suggest that they do. The Islanders have the league's best mark on score-adjusted unblocked shot attempts, ahead of even the buzzsaw that the Habs witnessed when they played the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier this week. They have achieved their excellent record through strong team play, and even with Jaroslav Halak putting up only average numbers, the Isles are a dangerous team.
Evidence available might also suggest that Montreal is a team that does not belong in that group. Faced with a much more challenging schedule so far in March, the Canadiens have buckled. That Tampa Bay game appears to be a microcosm of their season, as Price dragged the team to the finish, but never received the help he needed.
The Canadiens will get a chance to right that wrong on Monday, when they got another crack at the Lightning. First, though, the Habs will have to get through another squad with a rightful claim to the mantle of best in the East.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
All stats are prior to Friday's games.
|48.7||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||55.1|
|1.17||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.13|
Know Your Enemy
If the Habs have the benefit of one small act of mercy, it may be the fact that the Islanders are coming off a back-to-back this evening. The Ottawa Senators, after disposing of Montreal on Thursday, moved on to the Islanders, meaning that we may see tired legs from the boys in orange and navy. Of particular interest will be Jack Capuano's decision in net, where his options include all-star Halak (who took the Ottawa start), and trade deadline acquisition Michal Neuvirth.
Neuvirth was rescued from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline, and gives New York an upgrade over their previous back-up, Chad Johnson. Neuvirth's presence in Buffalo, a historically poor team that somehow wrangled two average goaltenders when almost nothing else approached the same lofty heights, may have done some damage to his reputation, but his numbers are reasonably solid this year and last. Playing behind a team as strong as the Isles should do wonders to repair any misconceptions, and for Capuano, the Isles get the Halak insurance they'll need for the playoffs.
More recently in Islanders moves, however, is the extension of Johnny Boychuk's contract. The former Bruin, acquired prior to this season, has been a force in New York, and along with Nick Leddy, has changed the complexion of the team's D corps. Playing on the first pair, likely with Calvin De Haan, Boychuk will be relied upon to keep the offensively challenged Habs off the scoresheet.
De Haan's promotion to the first pair comes after Leddy suffered an injury earlier this week, which is expected to keep him out for two weeks. While it won't affect their impending playoff series, it may affect their seeding, as the Isles are sandwiched between the streaking Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metropolitan Division.
Last Time Out
Like the Islanders, the Canadiens may also be missing a top defenceman, as Nathan Beaulieu appears destined to sit out tonight's game. Unlike the Islanders, the Canadiens have a choice in losing out on one of their best defensive options.
With Greg Pateryn's recall from the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Habs have a decision to make when it comes to their defensive lineup. If indications from yesterday's team skate are to be believed, the decision may be that Beaulieu will step aside to make room for the former Michigan Wolverine.
Should that move come to fruition, it would deprive Montreal of a player who was a strong contributor in their most recent win over the Islanders. Nathan Beaulieu played 20:43 on January 17, driving possession well against second tear Islander contributors like Ryan Strome and Anders Lee. Beaulieu was one for two goals both for and against, but the fact that Montreal outshot New York 18-7 with him on the ice illustrates his impact on the contest.
Regardless of lineup configuration, the Habs desperately need a win to snap them out of their current funk. When the Islanders came to Montreal in January, the outcome was a huge bounce-back win after a tough loss to the Senators. Tonight, with the game on the Isles' home turf, the Canadiens will seek the same result.