The Montreal Canadiens season has been a series of let-downs.
Their season-opening winning streak, thought to signify their membership to an elite group of contenders, gradually gave way to the most disappointing stretch of hockey in the history of the franchise.
Their emphatic victory in the Winter Classic, earned at the expense of a hated rival and a direct competitor for a playoff spot, was followed only by more losing.
Even earlier this month, when the team finally pieced together three consecutive wins, they immediately gave up significant points to some of the league's most lacking outfits.
Players thought to be championship-calibre depth became deadline trade bait. Others thought ready to step up were given no chance at all. And worst of all, the core of the team — those young, transcendent players who have not faltered amidst all the crisis — have seen their shot at glory go just slightly dimmer.
The 2015-16 season, in almost every way, has been a disappointment. But with 20 games left to play, the Canadiens have a chance to change that.
How to Watch
Start time: 10:30 PM ET
In the Canadiens region (French): RDS
In the Canadiens region (English): Sportsnet East
Elsewhere: NHL GameCenter, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
|52.7||Score-Adjusted Corsi %||51.2|
|1.00||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.04|
*All stats are prior to Sunday night's games.
Know Your Enemy
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The San Jose Sharks have it easy.
Their Pacific Division, even with the the resurgence of the Anaheim Ducks, is the NHL's least competitive. With the Sharks' only possible threats, the four Western Canadian teams, essentially shutting it down for the season, three California teams find their playoff spots virtually guaranteed.
With that, the question turns to how far San Jose can extend their campaign. Despite consistently carrying one of the strongest cores, season in and season out for over a decade, the Sharks have gone no further than the Western Conference Final in their franchise's history. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and later Joe Pavelski, have been as productive and resilient as any leadership group in the league, but have not yet earned the chance to compete for Lord Stanley's mug. With reinforcements on hand, they now look to change that.
James Reimer, acquired at the low cost of nothing, gives the team a bonafide number one starter to complement their long-term starter, Martin Jones.
Meanwhile, Roman Polak will be expected to exert his veteran influence on a defence group that is already among the league's stingiest, ostensibly replacing injured bottom-pair man Matt Tennyson. And the well-traveled Nick Spaling will face the Canadiens after avoiding them on Saturday night, looking to fill the void left by Tommy Wingels' absence.
The additions, of which Reimer is far and away the most notable, give the Sharks stability heading into the postseason. But in a way, none of that matters.
If the Sharks wish to propel themselves to greater heights, Pavelski, Thornton, and to a lesser extent, Marleau, will be the engines that push them there.
With a referendum on the Canadiens season about to get underway, the task is clear for Michel Therrien and his crew.
Last Time Out
On their last attempt, with stakes much lower than those at play tonight, the Tricolore utterly failed in that regard. Pavelski unraveled the Montreal defence, engineering the two goals that separated his squad from the Habs.
After Marleau tapped in the game-opening tally, Pavelski tipped in a blue-line shot resultant of a defensive zone turnover. He then nailed Montreal's coffin shut, feeding Dainius Zubrus for the insurmountable third goal.
Montreal's leader, P.K. Subban, did all he could to equalize. The dynamic puck-carrier started the rush that culminated in his team's only goal, and was the catalyst behind virtually every scoring chance of note as the Habs tried to salvage the evening.
In the end, it was all for naught. The Canadiens were foiled, their struggles growing only more massive, while the Sharks padded their position in the standings.
Tonight, it will be on the Canadiens to ensure that a tiny piece of history does not repeat itself. Foremost, it will be on those who are not the likes of P.K., Pacioretty, and Plekanec; the core of this undermanned group.
The nature of the team, very much a product of its own results, is now such that the youth, the unknown newcomers, and even the oft-criticized regulars are being counted on to deliver. Should they fail, the ramifications could be great.
When it comes to understanding the slow progression of a lost game, to a lost season, to a lost career, the Canadiens' best and brightest need look no further than their opponents stars to see the process at work.