Jan 18, 2012; Montreal, QC, CAN; Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin (30) before the game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Center. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-US PRESSWIRE

Montreal Canadiens Entertain Washington Capitals in Bell Centre Matinee

Question: What is the best thing about finally throwing in the towel as far as the Habs` playoff chances are concerned?

Answer: We no longer have to refer to any of the upcoming contests as “must-win” games!!  WOOHOO!  Man Alive, am i glad to have that over and done with!!  That expression had been growing stale for a while now!

Well, now that the pressure truly is off, perhaps Montreal Canadiens fans can relax just enough to enjoy the remaining games purely for the entertainment value that they provide.  It is no longer necessary to prognosticate as to just how far-reaching are the impacts of each missed scoring opportunity, of each poorly executed defensive play, and of each lousy goal allowed.  Real hockey fans should be able to thrive on this situation: hockey for the sake of hockey in that exact moment in time.  Hockey, for the love of the game.  Hockey, for a wonderful manner in which to spend three hours of one`s day.  Sure, the question of pride no longer comes into play but certainly over the next 32 games, the team will still provide flashes of brilliance certain to bedazzle and to leave us wondering forever if we abandoned our team just a bit prematurely…

We have no choice but to live in the “here and now“ so i may as well enjoy it despite being fully armed with the knowledge that, come April 7th, the final curtain will drop on the Canadiens`season.  So what?  The fact that we will not participate in the post-season does not mean that my resting heart-rate won`t double every time PK Subban embarks on one of his end-to-end “i better get this done myself“ rushes.  Failure to make the playoffs will not diminish the astonishment that i sometimes feel when i witness Carey Price making a splendid save.  No, i will go on watching and i will try to really enjoy it for what it is: a 60 minute spectacle…nothing more, nothing less.  Acceptance is bliss my friends…wow, i just re-read what i wrote…i must be getting pretty old…

Old or not, playoffs or not, there still is plenty of hockey to watch and it all starts Saturday afternoon with a visit from Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals.  Yes, indeed, he will be back on the ice after serving a three game suspension and a self-imposed exile from the All-Star Game.   While i am not a fan of afternoon hockey, this should be a pretty good game to watch.

Washington, looking to move up from 9th spot into playoff contention will most likely be committed to turning in a good effort.  Montreal will undoubtedly want to avenge the 3-0 shutout loss that they were handed by the Capitals last time the teams met at the Bell Centre on January 18th.  Saturday`s game, then, will be only the 2nd of 4 meetings between these teams this season.  Washington comes to town riding a two-game losing streak (an OT loss to Tampa Bay and a regulation loss to the Panthers).  Montreal has also lost its last two matchups (Buffalo and Devils) after gaining some short-lived momentum prior to the All-Star Break.

I find it difficult to believe that the Caps have only scored 7 more goals than have the Canadiens (141-134).  We often think of Washington as an offensive force to be truly reckoned with while Montreal has a reputation of not being able to put the puck in the net.  That stat threw me for a bit of a loop.  Our Habs have allowed 3 fewer goals than the Capitals have surrendered.  So, all in all, not a huge difference in terms of this preliminary analysis.  We must did deeper to determine why Montreal sits near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings while the Caps chances of making the playoffs are quite strong.

A look at special teams might help us to gain some insight here. Washington`s power-play, an oh-so-critical component to wining games ranks 13th in the league while Montreal has the lowest man-advantage efficiency of any team in the NHL.  This once thriving aspect of the Habs`game has indeed become its Achilles heel.  While Montreal cannot seem to find a way to score when the other team has a player in the sin-bin, the Habs do boast the 2nd best penalty-kill in the league (NJ ranks first in this category).  The Washington penalty-killing unit, ranking 24th in the NHL should not have too many problems containing the often ridiculed Montreal power-play.  It is noteworthy that M ontreal has had 33 more man-advantage opportunities than the Captals.

Enough with the stats…they are largely irrelevant.  History has shown that any team can beat any other on any given game day.  What can contribute, however, to an edge for one team over another lies in the injuries to each team.  Montreal is missing Captain Brian Gionta, Travis Moen, Petteri Nokelainen, Michael Blunden, and Andrei Markov who has yet to suit up this season.  It is unclear at press time if Ryan White will be in the lineup.  He was injured during the exhibition season and, like Markov, has not participated in a regular season game.  The Caps will be without Niklas Backstrom who was injured by Rene Bourque when the latter was still a member of the Calgary Flames.  Defenseman Mike Green will also not dress for Washington.  As a result of their injury-depleted roster, Montreal has had to call up from Hamilton Louis Leblanc and Aaron Palushaj.

Enjoy the game for what it is…i bet that it will be a dandy!



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