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The Montreal Canadiens clearly needed some type of jumpstart after their play slowly descended from bad to perhaps the worst they’d played all season on Wednesday. Last night, the return of Carey Price did the trick.
For the first time in a long time, they looked like a unit of five players rather than just individual players all doing their own thing, which was usually chasing the puck around their own zone. They looked more like they had in Martin St. Louis’s first few weeks, a complete turnaround from the way they had played just 48 hours earlier.
Cole Caufield, whose cheating toward offence was one of the notable moments versus the Blue Jackets, made several good reads on the defensive side to keep counter-attacks from becoming odd-man rushes. That led to more play for him in the offensive zone, and he finished with one of the highest shares of expected goals in the game. The greatest performance of the night belonged to one of the most maligned players this year for his lack of engagement, Joel Armia, who led the team with five high-danger scoring chances.
Montreal was by far the better team versus an opponent that has been playing well. The difference was two poor shifts — one when they were too aggressive on offence and allowed a three-on-zero, another when the fourth line was a bit too loose in coverage — and the play of goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who faced 44 shots and allowed zero goals.
The effort Montreal put forth would win the game on most occasions, and now the question is whether they will play like that again tonight versus the Washington Capitals when they won’t be playing in front of Price.
Tale of the Tape
|45.1% (29th)||Scoring-chances-for %||50.2% (14th)|
|2.53 (31st)||Goals per game||3.34 (8th)|
|3.80 (32nd)||Goals against per game||2.93 (14th)|
|13.5% (31st)||PP%||19.6% (21st)|
|74.8% (27th)||PK%||81.6% (11th)|
The Capitals went through a lull in the middle of the season similar to the one the Canadiens had just been in. They had played very well to get into a good position in the Metropolitan Division to start the year, but with sizable gaps to the true contenders above them and the lottery teams below, their motivation seemed to sag as well.
From the start of January to the end of February, they won only eight of 22 games. Since March 1, they’ve won 13 of 19, which is nearly identical to what the Islanders had done before visiting the Habs last night. The Canadiens proved they could slow a hot team down if they want to, and tonight is a chance to do it again.
One thing the Capitals don’t have is a goalie of Sorokin’s calibre, so it’s unlikely that a 44-shot performance would be fruitless for a second consecutive night. Both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek tried to stop the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, and both left the game with sub-.800 save percentages. Samsonov, who is the most likely to get the call tonight, has rarely allowed fewer than three goals all season long, and the Canadiens have beaten him five times in two games so far this year.
He still wins a lot of those (including the two versus the Habs ... ) thanks to the offensive prowess of his team ( ... with 11 goals of support). It’s defenceman John Carlson who has upped his game the most in the last two months, contributing 23 points in the last 19 games. He’s going to finish a season with more than 70 points once again, one of the most consistent blue-line producers in the NHL. He’s not getting the attention that Cale Makar and Roman Josi are in the Norris Trophy race, but the Capitals know how crucial he is for their hope of pulling off a few upsets in the post-season, and the Canadiens are fully aware that a significant portion of Washington’s offence will be orchestrated by him tonight.