The Montreal Canadiens are no longer first. And with the hyperbole of desperation in full effect, at this point, it feels like they would be better off worst.
As of this writing, following the Canadiens' loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday evening, the Habs sit precariously in the Eastern Conference's second wildcard position. With the Pittsburgh Penguins lurking only one point them, and holding two extra games over Montreal, the implication is clear: the Montreal Canadiens are effectively not a playoff team.
While the slide is shocking, the Canadiens have come to the right place if they wish to turn it around. Their Winter Classic dismantling of the Boston Bruins is one of the few glimmers of pride in Montreal's recent schedule, and if they're to avert the slow and painful death of their season, they'll to replicate that performance tonight.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
|53.4||Score-Adjusted Corsi %||50.3|
|1.01||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.09|
Know Your Enemy
The Bruins stumbled following their outdoor defeat, losing four of the five games that followed their clash with the Tricolore. They've righted the ship, though, somewhat, taking four points from the Sabres and Maple Leafs in a weekend back-to-back.
It starts with Brad Marchand, who was sorely missed by his teammates as he served the first of a three game suspension during the game at Gillette Stadium. The winger isn't Boston's most important forward - look no further than the man to Marchand's right to identify that player - but his speed and skill give a much-needed boost to a Boston forward lineup that lacks it. The Bruins are a different team with Marchand on the ice.
The trickle-down effect creates a solid second line, as well. Matt Beleskey, one of the most noticeable Bruins when these two teams last met, teams with Loui Eriksson and Ryan Spooner to form a second line with enough scoring punch to make the Habs take notice.
The closer you get to the bottom of Boston's lineup, however, the more problematic things start to appear. The recent fourth line, created without David Pastrnak available, is wretched: Zac Rinaldo and Max Talbot were both under 20% on even strength possession at the Winter Classic, while Landon Ferraro won't have the protection of playing with the Bruins' big guns tonight.
The persistent advantage that the Canadiens enjoyed because of their forward depth earlier in the season appears to have evaporated, and whether the problem has been created by injury, bad luck, or the total misuse of the team's talent, there's no reason to expect that the cohesion that characterized their initial play will return tonight. But if the Canadiens keep getting good production from their top players, and can push back against that fourth line and third defensive pair, they may get just enough to get another win from the black and gold.
Last Time Out
What they got out of the Bruins last time was much more than a win. Their controlled demolition of the Bruins feels like a near-spiritual experience for an organization whose followers have most often felt betrayed by the hockey Gods of late.
An odd-man rush barely a minute in bore no fruit, but the Canadiens would capitalize off the ensuing draw. David Desharnais swatted a rebound from mid-air, getting just enough force behind the puck to let it trickle over the goal line. The floodgates didn't exactly open from there, but it gave the Habs the first goal they have so often failed to claim of late.
An absolutely dominant first period performance set the stage for more goals in the second, as Paul Byron took a clever pass from Brian Flynn and tapped in his team's second tally. Then, it was Brendan Gallagher punctuating his celebrated return, completing a pretty passing play with Max Pacioretty.
The Bruins pushed from there, but their efforts were mostly fodder for Mike Condon's highlight reel. A tipped Bruins shot near the start of the third made things interesting, but it would be the only blemish on a record most notable for its' second-period-closing windmill save.
In the end, it was Pacioretty dousing the Bruins' momentum, rifling home some extra insurance on a two-on-one. Byron would get his second of the game, tapping in a rebound as time wound down. It put the finishing touches on the type of game that can give the team and its' fans hope, even as things feel increasingly hopeless.
A win tonight, momentarily satisfying as it might be, would far from solve Montreal's problems. At this point, however, the organization is in dire need of some ammunition to keep the rhetoric in check. While perhaps not apparent from the lack of winning, this is a team in win-now mode. Any path toward redemption starts with this first game.