For the Montreal Canadiens, the month of March started on the poorest possible terms. They lost three straight regulation games for just the second time this season. Carey Price singlehandedly shutdown a lottery team, but the Habs managed only one more point against the Lightning or Senators. Since that loss to Ottawa, however, Montreal has slowly turned things around.
Tonight, facing one of the Presidents' Trophy's many suitors, the Habs have a chance to push their record for the month over .500. To do so, they'll have to knock off a team mired in a slump even more severe than the one Montreal recently escaped.
The Nashville Predators have spent a great deal of time at or near the top of the league so far this season, but lately, they haven't looked like themselves. Despite loading up at the trade deadline by acquiring a solid utility forward and one of the best available defenders, the Predators have hit a bit of a rough patch in an otherwise exemplary campaign.
Since bringing Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson into the fold, the Preds are an underwhelming 5-10-1. With the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks looking to distance themselves in the race for the Western Conference title, the Predators will look to keep pace this evening.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
|48.6||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||53.6|
|1.22||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.31|
Know Your Enemy
Like the Habs, the Predators have enjoyed extremely high quality goaltending this season. Pekka Rinne is one of Price's closest competitors, with only Cory Schneider's save percentage coming between Montreal's starter and his likely counterpart. The Canadiens were fortunate to avoid Rinne in their last encounter, but tonight, they'll almost certainly have to face Nashville's best.
Thankfully for Montreal, they'll have a different advantage this evening. At 1.5 even strength goals per sixty minutes over their last ten games, the Predators are down two goals from the the 3.5 goal ten game rolling average they were sporting when these two teams last met. The problem is a combination of a shooting percentage in decline (the squad is under 6% over their last ten), and decreasing shot production. These symptoms can both be attributed to the same root cause: personnel.
The Predators have had, for some time, a reputation as a defensively disciplined team that could not produce at the other end. Much of this was the product of long-time Head Coach Barry Trotz piecing together a system out of the parts on hand, but with greater talent available, Peter Laviolette's version of the team was suppposed to be different.
Injuries to two of the team's most important offensive players, James Neal and Colin Wilson, haven't helped. Both players are considered day-to-day, but barring some rapid progress, neither player will see the ice tonight. That leaves the team's other two most talented scorers: Mike Ribeiro and Filip Forsberg.
After a torrid start to the year, Forsberg has gone cold, putting up only three points in his last 12 games. Even worse, his shot rate has fallen by almost half, down from almost 3 per game on the season to 1.7 per game over his last seven. Combined with a cold streak that has Ribeiro six full games removed from his last point, the Predators are short four of their most dangerous weapons.
To compensate, the team must look to the back-end for help. Shea Weber and Roman Josi are two of the NHL's best rearguards, and the duo make Nashville one of only two teams to ice two top ten scorers on their blue line. And while Ryan Ellis and Seth Jones also have some scoring savvy, it is their most recent acquisition who appears to be may be poised to make a difference.
As On The Forecheck lays out, Cody Franson was been greatly underutilized since joining his new team. Franson was a true bright spot in one of the league's gloomiest organizations, but with the sixth most ice time among Predators defencemen, the B.C. native isn't getting a chance to show off. With possession numbers approaching 60%, and demonstrated ability to move the puck, a player like Franson might be exactly what Nashville needs to kick start their stalled offensive engine.
Last Time Out
Just before the All-Star break, it was the Canadiens that played like the slumping team. The Habs took their tendency for slow starts to a whole new level, drifting through the first forty minutes of the game before finding their legs. When they did perk up, it was on the strength of the team's best skater.
P.K. Subban was an absolute force, registering a shot attempts for percentage second only to Tom Gilbert. While Gilbert will be absent this evening, recipient of a puck to the face against San Jose, Montreal will be counting on Subban to reprise his role as offensive catalyst.
#76 got one of Les Tricolore's first prime chances, executing one of his signature moves by looping around the offensive zone, only to throw the puck directly to a forward directly in the slot. Later, he rang a blistering shot off the post, waited for the play to flow back to him, and put a perfect slap pass on Alex Galchenyuk's tape for the game-tying goal.
Then, in overtime, the Habs went back to the well. After his first cracks at a high slot one-timer were foiled, Subban found his way to open ice on the left side. Jones could do nothing but look on, as P.K. put the winner past Carter Hutton.
The Canadiens know exactly what it is like to be dependent on members of their D corps to get the offense moving. Tonight, the Habs will have to hope that it is the Toronto native, not the former Maple Leaf, who sets an example.