The Montreal Canadiens will embark on their March schedule in the strongest possible position.
They have a three point lead over their closest competition in the Eastern Conference standings. Even better, they've played only 62 games, two fewer than the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lighting.
After an inauspicious start to February, the Canadiens have won nine of their last twelve games, including their last four straight. Down just two points, but with a game in hand on Nashville, the Habs have the Presidents' Trophy firmly in their sights.
The four game trip their begin this evening is traditionally one of the most difficult parts of the season. It involves long distance travel, a time change, and games against four teams whose competence typically ranges between decent and deadly.
The trip offers a much-anticipated rendezvous with the recently traded Jiri Sekac. Later, the Habs will get a chance to prove that their loss to Arizona was a fluke, and that their win over Los Angeles wasn't. But first, there is the San Jose Sharks.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
|49.3||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||50.3|
|1.24||5v5 Goal Ratio||0.90|
Know Your Enemy
When the San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens first faced off last season, in late October 2013, the game was presented as a stern test. The Sharks were their perennial contender selves, and started 2013-14 with the same type of strong-to-dominant play that has characterized the franchise since Joe Thornton arrived on the scene after the 04-05 lockout.
The Habs and Sharks played two games last year, and they were mostly without consequence as far as altering either team's destiny. But while Montreal made a run at the Eastern crown, San Jose's Stanley Cup aspirations stalled out much more quickly than anticipated.
A well-publicized collapse from a three game advantage over the Kings in their best of seven series last spring brought sweeping changes to Northern California. The playoff failure was seemingly construed as a failure of Thornton's leadership, and his captaincy was stripped. But if Thornton's performance in the playoffs was a failure, the off-season decisions of Sharks management were a catastrophe.
Veteran defenceman Dan Boyle was allowed to leave, but not adequately replaced. The Sharks retained the talents of dubious players like Mike Brown and Scott Hannan. Topping it all off, they brought in John Scott, a player sure to supply the type of character that their point-per-game, former MVP surely could not.
Combined with time missed by quality depth like Justin Braun and Tyler Kennedy, the ascension of recent doormats like the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets, and some below average goaltending, the Sharks find themselves with only 17.4% odds of qualifying for the post-season.
Last Time Out
The Canadiens lost to San Jose twice last year, including that aforementioned late October test. That game ended in a 2-0 shutout loss, a contest in which the Habs fought hard to equalize a one goal deficit, but were ultimately overwhelmed.
The second game was not so close. The Sharks earned another shutout, this time winning by a four goal margin. The two blank slates were half of Antti Niemi's shutout output for the year, but the most dangerous Shark was not playing net. Logan Couture got points on five of six San Jose goals, and along with players like Thornton and Joe Pavelski, figures to be among the Sharks best weapons again tonight.
A Canadiens-Sharks game has been, for several years, an opportunity for Montreal to see how they match-up against the type of strong team that they're likely to face off against in the playoffs. This time, the Habs have a strong say as to whether San Jose will be a playoff team at all.