I am not going to dwell on the fact that this is a critical game for both teams. That would be redundant. For some teams, each and every game remaining in the schedule can be qualified as “the most important game” of the season. At this point, after a very trying first half of the season, I want to enjoy a few of the games that i watch. All attempts, then, will be made to focus on the immediate, on the present moment. Many will blow things out of proportion. Hypotheses outlining just how costly in the long-term each and every mistake made is will be offered in scores. Tonight, Habs fans owe themselves a break. Let us just try to revel in the magic that takes place on the ice.
Rather than engage in Calculus 3 level calculations and prognosticate as to what will happen come trade deadline or how the chips will fall on April 7th, we should relish the entertainment value of the 60 minute spectacle between two teams that have a decent rivalry. We owe ourselves a break and a smile. Join me for running commentary during the game at http://awinninghabit.com/2012/01/20/liveblog-montreal-canadiens-vs-pittsburgh-penguins/.
As a result of its abysmal start, the law of averages owes Montreal a victory no matter which statistic you explore. Pittsburgh has defeated the Habs in the two previous contests between these squads this year. Montreal also enters the foray in 13th position in the East, 10 points out of playoff contention. The Pens, despite being decimated by injuries, sit in 6th with 54 points. Their performance represents a 12 point improvement over the accomplishments of the Canadiens to date. They have done this by posting 8 more regulation-time victories and 4 less OT/SO losses. Both teams have gone 4 -6 in their last 10 but Pittsburgh is riding a four-game winning streak.
Let us take a look at how the teams match up:
The Penguins average nearly half a goal more than the Habs per game. Imagine what the standings would look like had Montreal managed 20 more goals on the season to date. Pittsburgh’s 14o goals ranks them 5th in the East while the Habs are in 12th position with 116 tallies. In averaging 5 shots more per game than the Habs, it is no big surprise that the Penguins pop more in.
The Penguins, impressively, can boast two players within the top 20 point getters in the NHL. Evgeni Malkin in fact leads the league with 54 (24 goals and 30 assists) while James Neal in 20th spot overall has 42 (24 goals and 18 assists). In stark contrast, Montreal has only one representative in the top 60, namely Eric Cole who has 33 points (17 goals and 16 assists). It is clear that the Pens hold the edge in this dimension.
Pittsburgh’s potent offense has not come at the expense of sound defense. The home team in allowing 118 goals against, has an 8 goal advantage over the “defense-first” Montreal Canadiens (126 goals against). All told, the Pens enjoy a +22 goal differential while the struggling bleu/blanc/rouge scores a -10 in the same category. The Penguins team has also been successful in allowing nearly two shots fewer against per game than their Montreal counterparts. Surely that helps too.
I find it a bit difficult to reconcile the fact that Pittsburgh allows fewer shots on goal while Montreal fares significantly better in the shot blocking department. So, while Pittsburgh somehow allows fewer shots, their leading shot blocker, Paul Martin, ranks 64th with 66 interceptions. The Habs, on the other hand, boast two shot blocking leaders in the top 14. Josh Gorges, ranked # 1 in this capacity, has prevented 126 shots from reaching his net while Hal Gill has sacrificed himself 100 times. The numbers do not lie, though…you have to give the edge to Pittsburgh here as well.
Peter Budaj gets the start tonight for Montreal. He played very well recently, most notably against the New York Rangers in a 4-1 victory. Cunneyworth was criticized for giving the nod to Price in the next game. Fans and media claimed that the backup not only deserved another start but that Price also requires some rest. In only 6 starts this season, Budaj has won 2 games and lost 4. His numbers are comparable to Price: 2.51 GAA and a .913 SP.
Yet again, the opposition chooses to go with the backup against the struggling Habs. Brent Johnson is the “probable starter” for the Penguins. He has started 9 games thus far going 2-5-2. He sports a 3.47 GAA and a .876 SP. Last time i mocked a goaltender’s accomplishments, Michael Neuvirth of the Capitals stoned the Habs 3-0.
This is a bittersweet category as far as Montreal is concerned. The team does an exceptional job on the penalty-kill. Their performance in this aspect of the game has earned them respect around the league and a #2 ranking overall with 89.1 percent of penalties successfully killed. Kudos to Hal Gill, Josh Gorges, and to Tomas Plekanec who lead the charge in this area. The penalty-kill unit does face the 10th ranked power play of the Penguins tonight which capitalizes on 18.9 percent of man-advantage opportunities.
While the Habs do very well when down a man, it seems that a true disadvantage comes when the team is cursed with the extra attacker. The squad ranks dead last in terms of converting on the power play with a meagre 12.3% conversion rate. To add insult to injury, Montreal has allowed 5 shorthanded goals against thus far!
The Penguins with the 5th rank penalty-kill in the NHL should have no trouble containing the Habs in these situations. Then again, at some point, Montreal will break through whatever obstacle has been thwarting them thus far. Will it be tonight?
Things of Note
- The Penguins are playing their second game in as many nights
- Sidney Crosby is still out…so is Jordan Staal, Simon Despres, and Arron Asham
- Kris Letang is back in for Pittsburgh
- Montreal will be playing without the services of Andrei Markov, Brian Gionta, Ryan White
- It has been suggested that Chris Campoli will be back in the lineup but this is not confirmed as of yet…no word on who will be sitting out if that happens.