After wrapping up the Florida portion of their six-game road trip, the last stop before returning home lands the Montreal Canadiens at Nationwide Arena to play the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It hasn’t been a successful swing for the Habs, as the only win came in the first game versus the New York Islanders. They did claim a point in two other games, including taking the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, to a shootout on Saturday aftenoon.
Montreal has been dealing with a few injuries of late, with players missing at all three positions, most recently seing Phillip Danault leave Saturday’s game after taking a high stick. The team has been making due with the forwards its had on the roster since before the deadline, with healthy players rotating in just in time for another to go down with an injury, leaving little chance to develop any sort of chemistry between players, but affording plenty of opportunity to try out new combinations.
The experimentation has led to a defence pairing of Jeff Petry and the suprising Mike Reilly, who is looking to be a much better player than the cost of a fifth-round pick to acquire him would have suggested. Reilly has five assists in the six games he’s played with the team, sitting at a +4 rating on a club that has been outscored 20-16 in his time in the organization, while seeing the most ice time of any player on the team in that time.
Saturday’s game also saw Charles Hudon playing with Alex Galchenyuk, and the two combined to show what they could accomplish if paired together for a more extended period. Despite both building their reputations on their goal-scoring to this point of their young careers, they’ve been showing off their setup skills as well, with Hudon’s second assist of the game leading to the go-ahead goal from the American.
In fact, despite the offensive woes the team has seen, Galchenyuk is on pace to set a new career high in assists. Fans would surely rather he was using his elite-level wrist shot, but playing with a player like Hudon who can also perform both offensive tasks could open both up to create a two-headed dynamic attack.
Their goal on Saturday stood as the potential game-winner until Nikita Kucherov made his mark late in the third. The Habs will hope to close out their contest in a more effective way tonight, and head home on a winning note.
How to watch
Puck drop: 7:00 PM EDT / 4:00 PM PDT
In Canada: TSN2 (English), RDS (French)
In the Panthers region: FS-O
Elsewhere: NHL.tv/NHL GameCentre Live, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
The script was flipped the first time the Canadiens and Blue Jackets met this season, with Paul Byron scoring a goal in the latter half of the third period to pull the Habs back into a tie. But the victory went to Columbus thanks to a goal from Zach Werenski in overtime; one of the 12 cases of the Canadiens getting the game beyond regulation but being unable to come out on top in 2017-18.
Despite getting outshot 38-28 in a game two weeks later, the Canadiens got a great performance from Carey Price in his second game back from an absence of nearly a month, allowing just one goal while his team scored three.
Tonight’s rubber match is an important one for the Blue Jackets, who have recovered from a February slide with a purposeful march in recent games. With wins in six of their last eight games and riding a four-game winning streak, they’ve stayed in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and have — for now — fended off the unstoppable force that is the Panthers.
Pierre-Luc Dubois — the only player to beat Price in the previous meeting — has been coming into his own as the season has gone on, playing a top-six centre role for the team as a 19-year-old, and doing it well. His 37 points in 69 games aren’t exactly what the team was expecting when they drafted him third overall in 2016, but with six points in his last four games, he’s contributing when it matters most.
Artemi Panarin leads the team with 60 points, but just as impressive may be the play of defenceman Seth Jones, who sits second on the team with 46 points, 13 of them goals. He’s been firing the puck from everywhere this season, behind only Brent Burns in shots on goal, and it has been paying off.
He has 16 power-play points, and that’s on a team with a dreadful man advantage; one that ranks dead last in the NHL. Columbus has just one power-play goal in the month of March, which will make it difficult to keep up with the offensive power of the Panthers and New Jersey Devils in a three-team battle for two wild-card spots. Fortunately, they have been the better defensive squad of that group, and may be able to rely on the play of Sergei Bobrovsky to make up the difference and allow them to squeak in.