The Canadiens and Maple Leafs started the 2014-15 NHL campaign on the same hopeful path. The Habs were months removed from a conference final berth, and having shed their dead weight, were ready to do some real damage.
The Leafs, meanwhile, had seemingly taken the summer of analytics to heart, bringing in a number of different-thinking hockey minds and unloading the one-dimensional players that had characterized the team in seasons past.
Both teams had the same goal: a playoff berth. On the final day of the regular season, it is clear that only one team will achieve that goal.
The Canadiens' advancement to the second season has been a virtual certainty for some time, and tonight, they'll focus on achieving a greater objective. The division title is on the line, and while a loss does not disqualify Montreal from potential home ice advantage through at least the second round, a single point guarantees a first place finish in the Atlantic.
By starting Carey Price, the Habs are making it clear they're going for it. A last game of the year against a last place team may seem like an opportunity to rest key starters before the grueling playoffs, but it looks like only one key starter is sure to rest.
The Habs made it through their first game post-Pacioretty, managing four goals to beat the Red Wings. Tonight, they'll to their secondary scorers to fill the net again.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
|48.9||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||45.1|
|1.19||5v5 Goal Ratio||0.80|
Know Your Enemy
The Leafs have less ambitious goals. Their place in the overall standings cannot change tonight, as their most recent loss guaranteed a bottom-5 finish. Instead, Toronto's merry band of fill-ins and call-ups will look to avoid being swept in the season series.
A win for Montreal would mark their third consecutive sweep, having finished off the Panthers and Red Wings in consecutive games. The Maple Leafs have a couple of skaters who qualify as top-tier talent, and so the danger of Phil Kessel or James van Riemsdyk scoring enough to take over tonight's contest is ever-present. Meanwhile, Jonathan Bernier is more than capable of stealing a game, weary as he must be of being let down by his teammates. Despite the presence of these valuable pieces, however, they Leafs lack the depth required to compete with a Habs team running at full steam.
The Leafs have spread their talent thin, and beyond the combination of Kessel and JVR, have no line that should pose any great offensive threat. Dion Phaneuf, as per usual, will be asked to carry a heavy burden on the second pair with Eric Brewer, if only to insulate the all-AHL duo of Andrew Macwilliam and Tim Erixon behind him. The most formidable pair is without question that of Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. The combination has grown all season long, and the responsibility placed on them has grown accordingly. These two players are not only Toronto's best hope on the back-end tonight, but a significant part of the foundation that thisr rebuild will be built on.
Of course, the Leafs player most worthy of Montreal's concern may be Colton Orr. Orr has been called up to the big leagues one last time, ostensibly to appreciate for his tenure in the Toronto organization. Orr has a well-documented history of picking on the Habs, amassing a record of infamous acts that includes last year's fight his George Parros, and an attempted cheap shot on Tomas Plekanec the year before.
Besides taking home the division, Montreal's only goal tonight should be to stay healthy. A player like Orr trying to make his presence felt may prove an impediment.
Last Time Out
The Canadiens survived unscathed last time out, earning a 4-0 shutout win over their woebegone former rivals. The game marked the first and only goal of the year for Manny Malhotra, who trailed Dale Weise before accepting a drop pass and cashing in on Bernier.
The game marked one of Price's nine shutouts on the year so far, the capstone on what has been a defensive dominance of the Maple Leafs by Montreal so far this year. No Toronto skater has earned more than a single point against Montreal in three games on the campaign, and with the Buds averaging just 1.3 goals per game over their last ten games, the Canadiens will look to ensure they remain stifled.
That last game against Toronto mirrored this one, as it marked a final tune-up before a greater challenge. The Habs advanced beyond that Toronto game to embark on their ill-fated Pacific road trip, a stretch which would have seen the Canadiens eliminated had it been a playoff series and not simply a strong regular season test.
Tonight, the Habs will look for another win over Toronto, but they'll also be building toward something more significant. The sternest examination of the Habs' season start next week, and with a winnable game on their plate this evening, the Canadiens have a chance to continue the journey that started last October.