When the NHL released the 2016-17 schedule, there probably weren’t too many people who were circling a Friday night game, just before Christmas, against the Columbus Blue Jackets, on their calendar. But here we are, and tonight’s contest is shaping up to be something of a big deal.
There’s an obvious, administrative factor at play here. The Blue Jackets are Montreal’s direct competitor and one of only a small handful of teams ahead of the Canadiens in both the Eastern Conference and the league.
But there’s also a much more personal set of factors to consider. And those are the ones that the Habs have come to resolve tonight.
How to watch
Puck drop: 7:00 PM EST / 4:00 PM PST
In the Canadiens region: SNE (English), RDS (French)
In the Blue Jackets region: FS-O
Elsewhere: NHL.tv/NHL Gamecenter Live, NHL Center Ice
The Canadiens were utterly embarrassed on a historical scale on November 4, suffering their worst loss in recent memory. The Blue Jackets ran roughshod, racking up 10 goals while the hapless Habs were powerless to respond.
That win helped to set the tone for Columbus’s remarkable first third of the season. The Blue Jackets were just over .500 when they trounced Montreal, and now, having earned their 11th consecutive win in decisive fashion last night, sit atop the league table.
As the Canadiens saw first-hand when Sergei Bobrovsky shut them out earlier this year, the goaltending in Ohio is peerless. Bobrovsky has been dominant, but even on the few occasions when he’s taken the night off, his team hasn’t missed a beat with Curtis McElhinney.
The Blue Jackets gave up five goals (to the Boston Bruins) and four goals (to the St. Louis Blues) in consecutive games during the second week of November. In the eighteen games that have followed, no Columbus opponent has mustered more than three. Accordingly, Columbus has won fifteen times in that span.
Up front, Cam Atkinson is in uncharted territory, putting up more than a point per game after setting a new career high with 53 points in 81 games last year. It was Atkinson who opened the scoring when these two teams last met, and his two goals placed him among the eight Blue Jackets who recorded at least two points that night.
A good chunk of the Columbus offence was generated on the powerplay. The Jackets went 4/5 on the night, contributing to their gaudy 27% conversion rate on the campaign. Needless to say, whether the source is Atkinson’s personal offensive prowess or his team’s lethal man advantage, the Habs can’t afford to allow Columbus to get on the scoreboard so early and often tonight.
And that brings us to the most significant, and most personal, angle on this evening. Al Montoya took one (ten, in fact) for his team in early November, suffering whatever personal insult came with that loss in order to keep Carey Price on schedule. The team looked to Montoya’s show of commitment as a silver lining on that very dark night, and the strategy seemed to pay off; Price secured an important bounce-back win the very next night.
So while tonight may be a Friday night in December, just before Christmas, the stakes couldn’t be higher for the Montreal Canadiens. If Montoya is to help the Habs claim those stakes, he’ll need more than the indomitable spirit he showed last time. Like the pair in the Columbus crease has done all season, his team will need him to stop some pucks.