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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Canadiens Game Day: Bruins and Habs Renew Rivalry in Critical Four-Pointer

by Kamal Panesar

OK, admit it. With the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins ready for a major grudge match tonight at the Bell Centre, there is only one thing on your mind:

Will Hal Gill score a goal in a third consecutive game?

Umm, no? That's not what's on your mind? Strange.

Well, perhaps you are too busy thinking about the last time these two teams faced off, on February 9th, in Boston. Maybe you're thinking about the 182 minutes of penalties that were called in that game, or the 12 fights that broke out, or the 8-6 final score, or the Benoit Pouliot one-punch knockout of David Krejci or three Boston tough guys gooning it up against Tom Pyatt, Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek in the dying minutes of the game?

Or maybe, just maybe, you are wondering if tonight's game—the fifth of six meetings between these two teams this season—is going to be another blood bath.

While anything is possible and there is sure to be a ton of intensity tonight, I highly doubt it will be anything close to what we witnessed in early February.

The fact is that while there is clearly no love lost between these two teams, they are both in the thick of major playoff positioning races and need the two points in the standings.

As such, I expect a hard-fought playoff intensity tonight where both teams do everything in their power to win the game with their sticks—not their fists.


Standings

The Bruins are currently first in the Northeast division and second overall in the Eastern Conference, with a 38-19-8 record for 84 points in 65 games. A win tonight by Boston and a loss by Philadelphia would move the Bruins into a tie with the Flyers for first overall in the East, with 86 points.

After beating Montreal 8-6 in February, the Bruins lost three straight games followed by an incredible seven-game win-streak to pull five points ahead of Montreal in the standings.

Boston is 7-2-1 in their last 10 games.

Montrea has also had its share of success lately, after going into a swoon following their February loss to the Bruins. The Habs are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, have a 36-23-7 record for 79 points and are 5-1-0 in their last six.

As such, tonight's collision course will feature two of the hottest teams in the league.

Montreal is in sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings and a regulation win by the Habs would put them three points behind Boston, who holds one game in hand. A Canadiens' win would also leave them one point back of the slumping Lightning for fifth overall and three back of Pittsburgh and the Caps.


Goaltending

No, it is not likely that Carey Price and Tim Thomas will drop the gloves again and no, it is not likely that they will each let in six or more goals.

What is likely, however, is that both teams will return to their tight defensive play and that both goaltenders will put on All-Star performances.

Price will be getting his 59th start of the season to Thomas' 47. While Price has 31 wins to Thomas' 29, it is beyond impressive that the latter has done so in only 47 starts.

Thomas leads all goaltenders with a 1.97 GAA and a sparkling .939 save percentage.

Price was just named the NHL's third star of the week yesterday, having won his last three starts where he stopped 113 of 116 shots for a ridiculous .974 save percentage.


Scoring and Special Teams

The Bruins, who at one point were among the lowest scoring teams in the league, have been a scoring machine of late, buoyed by their trade deadline acquisitions of Tomas Kaberle and Rich Peverley.

Boston now has the fifth overall goals-for at 3.0 per game, the second overall goals-against with 2.3 per game, the 18th overall power play at 17.1 percent and the 13th penalty kill at 82.6 percent.

The Habs, on the other hand, are still the lowest scoring current playoff team, with a measly 22nd overall 2.6 per game. Amazingly, Montreal has scored only two fewer goals than the "high-octane" Washington Capitals—178 goals-for—this season.

The Habs have the eighth best power play at 19.9 percent efficiency to counter their anemic five-on-five scoring. As such, if the Bruins goon it up tonight, Montreal would be wise to walk away, take the penalty and make them pay on the scoreboard.

On the defensive side of the puck, Montreal continues their strong play with the eighth best goals-for at 2.5 per game and the seventh best penalty kill at 83.8 percent efficiency.


Roster Changes and Injuries

There is no official word yet on roster changes for the Canadiens, but it would not be surprising to see Paul Mara and Ryan White back in the lineup in place of Yannick Weber and Tom Pyatt, respectively.

Both Mara and White bring size and grit to the lineup, while still having the ability to play hockey. Otherwise, I would expect pretty much the same roster from the Habs that has won five of the last six.

The surging Bruins are also unlikely to tinker with a lineup that has won seven of its last eight games.

Montreal continues to be without the services of Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Jaroslav Spacek and Mathieu Darche, although Darche did practice by himself this week and could be back in the lineup in the near future.

The B's are still without Marc Savard, who is out indefinitely, while Andrew Ference, Patrice Bergeron and Steven Kampfer continue to be day-to-day.


Key Matchup

Ordinarily, I would say that the matchup to watch is Price versus Thomas, as both are sure to bring their "A" games to the rink tonight. That being said, I think the reality is that the true matchup to watch will be Milan Lucic versus Carey Price.

The Habs had no answer for the Lucic line last time these two teams played, with the Boston behemoth screening, crashing into and otherwise making Price's life difficult. Boston is sure to employ a similar strategy tonight in order to get one of the hottest goalies in the league off his game.

Keep in mind that Montreal hadn't yet acquired Brent Sopel and Paul Mara the last time these two teams went to battle, and while both are on the slower side, they bring size and physicality that was previously lacking.

It will be interesting to see if they are able to provide more space for Price tonight.

Game time is at 7:30 p.m.

So what do you think the over/under is on the first penalty being called? I say five minutes into the game.


New Sunday Shinny Podcast

On this episode of the Sunday Shinny, Gary Whittaker, Amanda Stein and Kamal Panesar of HabsAddict, welcome HABIT-HER-WAY (Erica) to the panel.

Topics include:
-Can or should the Habs get more physical by using the newly formed lined with Kostitsyn, Eller and Moen?
-Are you impressed enough with the play of Gomez of late, or should Desharnais be given the opportunity?
-We eventually get to Carey Price, but spend quite a bit of time talking Michael Jackson and Charlie Sheen.
-Quick round of interesting questions to keep the panel on their toes

Click play below to listen in (listing time 43:03):


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Kamal is a freelance Habs writer, Senior Writer/Editor-in-Chief of HabsAddict.com, Montreal Canadiens Blogger on Hockeybuzz.com and Habs writer on TheFranchise.ca. Kamal is also a weekly contributor to the Sunday Shinny on The Team 990 (AM 990) every Sunday from 8 - 9 AM. Listen live at http://www.team990.com/

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images North America)

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