The Montreal Canadiens, fresh off a 3-0 shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday afternoon, prepare to take on the blazing hot Washington Capitals tonight at the Bell Centre.
The teams have split two decisions in Washington this season—the Caps won the first game 3-0 and the Habs pulled out a 3-2 shootout victory on Feb. 1—but tonight's game will be the Caps' first in Montreal since Game Six of their first round, seven-game defeat to these same Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs.
The Capitals are the hottest team in the league right now, riding an eight-game winning streak they are 9-1-0 in their last 10 games with 10 wins in their last 11. What's amazing about their current hot streak is that with few exceptions, they are winning tight, one- or two-goal games.
This is a massive reversal from their play last year where they were blowing the opposition out of the water during the regular season.
So after going through a tumultuous first half of the season, the Caps seem like a team who has fully embraced their new balanced system which trades a little offense for strong defense.
Washington's run puts them in second place overall in the Eastern Conference, with 90 points, one back of the slumping Flyers who have two games in hand on the Caps.
Montreal has also been ripping up the league of late, winning seven of their last 10 games despite seemingly losing another player to injury every night.
The Habs are comfortably in sixth place in the East with a seven points lead on the seventh place Sabres. Montreal's eyes, however, are clearly focused ahead of them on the struggling Bruins who are first place in the Northeast division, but losers of four straight games.
A win tonight by the Habs coupled with a Bruins loss to the Blue Jackets would put Montreal in a tie with Boston for points with 85—the B's have one game in hand.
With each game that passes, Montreal goaltender Carey Price is making a stronger case for both Vezina and Hart trophy consideration at season's end.
Starting his 62nd game of the season tonight, Price has a sixth overall 2.29 GAA, fifth overall .924 save percentage, is second overall with eight shutouts and tied for first overall with 33 wins.
The goaltending picture is less clear for Washington.
Supposed incumbent Semyon Varlamov has struggled this season, losing the starting job to Michael Neuvirth before going down with a knee injury. However, the Caps have seen the emergence of youngster Braden Holtby, in recent weeks, who has gone 8-2-2 in 12 starts and has started and won the Caps last four games.
There is no official word yet on who will start for the Caps tonight.
Scoring and Special Teams
It was not so long ago that this would be an epic match up of defense versus offense, but with the new direction the Caps have taken, these two teams stack up pretty evenly on paper.
The Caps offense is 22nd overall with 2.7 goals-for per game. Compare this to the Habs 23rd overall 2.6 per game and you can see that neither team scores a lot of goals.
Continuing on the offensive side of the puck, the Caps have a struggling 22nd overall power play operating at 16.4 percent efficiency.
Montreal has the seventh-best PP in the league at 19.9 percent efficiency.
If the offensive numbers are surprising the defensive stats will blow your hair back!
Montreal, known to be a defense-first team, has the eighth lowest goals-against at 2.4 per game and the seventh best penalty kill at 84.4 percent.
The Caps, however, better the Habs strong defensive number with the fourth-lowest goals-against in the league at 2.4 per game—in virtue of a few decimal places—and the third best PK at 85.6 percent.
As such, I would expect a tightly played, low-scoring affair tonight.
Roster Changes and Injuries
The Caps will likely roll with the same formation that is on an eight-game winning streak. They continue to be without the services of Tom Poti (injured reserve) and
Mike Green (injured reserve), while Nicklas Backstrom (day-to-day), Semyon Varlamov (day-to-day) and Jay Beagle (day-to-day) could be back any day.
Montreal, who continues to win games despite their players falling like flies, are still without the services of long-term injured players Jaroslav Spacek (injured reserve), Andrei Markov (injured reserve), Josh Gorges (injured reserve) and Mathieu Darche (injured reserve)—Darche was skating by himself this week and could return at some point over the next few weeks.
The team clinic continues to grow with Max Pacioretty (injured reserve) joining the list of players likely gone for the season and Brent Sopel (day-to-day) out with a broken bone in his hand.
A usual match between these two teams would be a straight defense versus offense scenario, but given the Caps' change in playing style, this will likely be more of a chess match.
As such, I think the key to tonight's game will be to see which team can out-wait the other. Whichever team is able to show more patience, produce less errors and ultimately take advantage of their opponents misgivings, should be able to come away with the victory.
Game time is at 7 p.m. ET.
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 a.m.-9 a.m. Listen live at http://www.team990.com/