The Montreal Canadiens, fresh off clinching their fourth straight playoff appearance, embark on their penultimate game of the season tonight in Ottawa against the Senators.
This will be the sixth and final game of the season between the two teams, in which the Sens have not fared very well. Montreal has won four of the five matches so far and outscored the Sens 11-2 in their last two wins.
The Habs have only been playing .500 hockey over their last ten games and will be trying on entering the playoffs on a roll.
For the Sens, their season ends once the regular season is over. However these are still professional athletes and, as such, will be playing for pride more than anything else.
The Sens are 13th overall in the East with 72 points, only two out of the conference basement. Despite being eliminated from playoff contention—and perhaps because of it—the Sens have a 6-3-1 record over their last ten.
Their recent hot streak includes a 5-2 Tuesday night win over the suddenly struggling Philadelphia Flyers.
Montreal, on the other hand, is coming off a 2-1 overtime win against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The win punched their ticket to the postseason.
The Habs are in sixth overall in the East with 93 points and two games to play in the season.
There is as much fluidity in the top three as there is in the bottom three in the East. As such, Montreal can't afford to rest on their laurels and would do well to win tonight and Saturday in Toronto.
The Sabres and Rangers are one and two points back of the Canadiens respectively.
Canadiens MVP Carey Price will get a rest tonight after getting his franchise record 71st start of the year on Tuesday.
In his place, backup Alex Auld will get his first start in eight games. The last time he played, Montreal rolled over the Minnesota Wild 8-1.
Montreal has won only three games since then.
Injuries have created a goaltending carousel for the Sens this season, with six goaltenders starting at various points over the year.
However with Craig Anderson starting six of the last seven while going 4-1-1, he seems likely to get the call for Ottawa.
Scoring and Special Teams
The Sens' goals-for and against are both in the bottom five of the league while their special teams are in the top-15.
Ottawa has the 29th goals-for at 2.3 per game (188 total goals), the 25th goals-against at 3.0 per game (245 total goals), the 14th overall power play at 17.8 percent and the eighth best penalty kill at 83.7 percent.
The Habs also have difficulty scoring as their 23rd 2.6 goal-for per game (210 total goals) shows. However they are much stronger on the defensive side and have a strong PP.
Montreal has the ninth best goals-against at 2.5 per game (205 total goals), the seventh best penalty kill at 84.1 percent and the seventh best PP at 19.4 percent.
As such, if the Canadiens commit to their defense-first system and wait for turnovers and mistakes by the Sens, they should have no problem pulling out the win.
Roster Changes and Injuries
There is no official word yet on the Canadiens roster for tonight but Yannick Weber is slotted to get back in the lineup. Veteran Jaroslav Spacek is also ready to return from injury, but there is no indication yet if he will be in the lineup tonight.
Montreal continues to be without the services of Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Max Pacioretty, Jeff Halpern and Alex Picard.
The Sens are no strangers to injury either with seven players on the sidelines.
Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar, Matt Carkner, Peter Regin and Erik Karlsson are all listed as day-to-day, while Marek Svatos and Pascal Leclaire are gone for the season.
Key to Victory
The Senators, freed of the burden of pressure, have been playing some inspired hockey lately. Still, with Daniel Alfredsson out of the lineup the offensive responsibilities lie squarely on Jason Spezza's shoulders.
If the Habs can shut down Spezza they should be able to skate to victory.
Montreal needs to make sure they use their speed to draw penalties and create pressure on the Sens defenders.
For Ottawa, they need to attack the Habs slower defenders with speed. In addition, given the Habs' tendency to shut down the slot area, they absolutely must get bodies to the net.
If the Habs can play their usual hermetic defensive game, this should end up being a low scoring victory for them.
Game time is 7:00 PM.
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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/