The Montreal Canadiens finished in the Eastern Conference basement last season, but have gotten off to strong start in the lockout-shortened campaign. The team's Hockey Night in Canada opponent, the Philadelphia Flyers, aren't as pleased after the season's first quarter.
While Montreal holds a minor four-point edge on Philadelphia, that's actually five places in the standings because the teams are so closely grouped. The difference between the conference's top seed and 10th place is just six points.
It illustrates exactly how small the margin for error is during the 48-game sprint to the playoffs. It also levels the playing field for teams like the Canadiens, who have the opportunity to ride the momentum of a good start into the postseason.
The Canadiens should be the fresher team on Saturday night. The Flyers are in New Jersey to play the Devils on Friday before heading to Montreal while the Canadiens are off. Here's everything you need to know for the weekend clash followed by some players to watch.
Which team will finish higher in the East?
Where: Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada
When: Saturday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. ET
Watch: NHL Network and CBC
Live Stream: NHL GameCenter
Key Injuries (via USA Today)
Flyers: Scott Hartnell (out, foot), Andrej Meszaros (out, arm) and Sean Couturier (questionable, flu)
Canadiens: Petteri Nokelainen (questionable, back)
Flyers Player to Watch: Claude Giroux
Giroux established himself as one of the league's most dangerous players by scoring 93 points, ranking third behind Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos in 77 games. He's sputtered out of the gate following the lockout, which helps explain why the Flyers are lagging behind in the East.
The 25-year-old center has eight points in 14 games, and just one goal in his last 12. He also sports a minus-two rating after being a cumulative plus-26 over the past two seasons. So he's clearly not playing up to his usual standards quite yet.
There's little doubt he will eventually get back to that elite level, though. His creative playmaking ability is nearly unmatched around the league and it's only a matter of time before he's back scoring at a point-per-game rate.
And that's exactly what the Flyers need from him because they lack depth up front, especially on the wings. If Giroux isn't playing like one of the best players in the NHL, Philadelphia is an average team and that's what its record shows so far.
Canadiens Player to Watch: Carey Price
Price has been a workhorse for the Canadiens in the early going, starting 11 of the team's 13 games en route to a league-leading eight wins. He also sports a 2.06 goals against average, which would be a career best, and registered a shutout in his last start.
Montreal needs him to remain in peak form if its going to remain a serious playoff contender. The Canadiens don't have a ton of offensive talent, but their defense has been strong and Price has taken care of the rest.
He's always had the talent to become one of the league's top netminders, but the amount of pressure placed on his shoulders from the outset slowed that process. It seems like he's finally starting to come into his own, and that's great news for Montreal.
Price has a good track record against the Flyers. He's posted two shutouts in 13 career starts with a .925 save percentage. Montreal will need another strong performance out of him on Saturday night to push its winning streak to three.
Which center will help give his team the edge?
Key Matchup: Danny Briere vs. Alex Galchenyuk
An interesting matchup of second-line centers. On one side, you have a wily veteran in Briere whose production dropped off last season and is off to another slow start. On the other, you have one of the league's top young talents who's made a smooth transition to the NHL.
At 35, Briere seems to have lost some of the trademark quickness that helped him net at least 30 goals four times in his career. He's scored just twice in 10 games and, as is the case with Giroux, the Flyers need him to step up if the offense is going to thrive.
As for Galchenyuk, the rookie's career is off to a terrific start. He's scored eight points in 13 games and compiled a plus-seven rating, which ranks him inside the top 30. The scary part for Eastern rivals is that he'll only get better with experience.
Canadiens 3, Flyers 2 (shootout)