Feb 7 2012; Winnipeg, MB, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate a goal by Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (81) against the Winnipeg Jets during the first period at the MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck- US PRESSWIRE

Montreal Canadiens Visit The Toronto Maple Leafs In Critical Contest

It is not quite the final lap yet but certainly not an opportune moment for a pit stop either.  Your Montreal Canadiens go into Saturday’s tussle with the 8th ranked Toronto Maple Leafs riding a 3 game winning streak and it is imperative to keep a good thing going.  A win not only breeds more confidence to a delicate yet surging team, it also narrows  the spread between these teams to 7.  Catastrophically, a loss increases the differential to an unbridgeable 11 points.  Critical victory in regulation, you say?  Indeed!

The Toronto squad regularly seems to be the more pumped when these two teams square off.  Montreal must manage to reverse the trend and demonstrate just how genuine they are when they express that they have not given up and that they believe in the group that exists within the dressing room.  The hosting Leafs have gone 6-3-1 in their last 10 but have dropped each of the last two by one goal against the Jets and the Flyers.

They hold a serious offensive edge against the Habs (Thank you Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul) and have scored 27 more times than Les Habitants (171-144).  Phil Kessel ranks 2nd in goals scored with 30 while Joffrey Lupul with 22 tallies occupies 16th position in that regard.  In terms of total points, the above-named players rank 4th and 5th respectively with 60 and 58 points.   Certainly no Habs`player is amassing points at a pace greater than 1 per game.  Max Pacioretty, the leading point getter for the Canadiens has 41 points (22 goals and 19 assists) and sits 49th overall in the scoring race.  Eric Cole ranks 53rd with 40 points.

On the flip side, Montreal has had more success defensively and ranks 4th in the East in terms of goals against.  And that ranking comes with the team fielding what was described as an inexperienced defensive corps.  It is encouraging to witness the growth and development of Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin who have gained very valuable experience in their rookie years.  Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge has only allowed 149 goals to the 161 that have found their was to the back of the Maple Leaf net.  Certainly the league leading Montreal penalty-kill has something to do with that.  Credit Hal Gill, Josh Gorges, and Tomas Plekanec for the success in that area.  In contrast, the Leafs struggle when down a man and have the 2nd worst success-rate in the NHL, managing to kill only 76.7% of penalties.

The power play is a completely different story.  Montreal ‘s struggles with the man advantage are well documented.  The league ‘s worst power-play only connects 12.8% of the time.  Toronto, on the other hand ranks 6th in the league and is successful on 19.9% of its opportunities.  Interestingly enough, both teams spend about the same time in the penalty box on a game-to-game basis…with the amount hovering around 10 minutes per game for each organization.

So, what do we expect for Saturday night?  Well, hopefully a throwback to when these teams truly did enjoy a wonderfully entertaining rivalry!  Old tyme hockey woud be a real treat!  What else?  Well, we know that Carey Price has been on fire recently.  In his last 3 starts he shut out the Jets and allowed only two goals in each game versus the Pens and the Islanders.  Four goals against in 3 games…not bad…not bad at all.  Max Pacioretty managed a hat-trick at the final buzzer against the Jets so he is on a bit of a roll with 22 goals thus far in the season.  Tomas Plekanec has been playing excellent hockey recently.  He continues to excel defensively.  It would also appear that he, more than any other Montreal forward,  gets sprung on breakaways regularly.  He actually has 6 points in his last eight games.  What i am trying to say is that he plays both ends of the ice and does so very well.  Scott Gomez managed to get one deep into the net against the Islanders and hopefully that is a sign that the levee has broken and that the points will now come in droves.  We certainly need everyone to fire on all cylinders the rest of the way if this season is to be salvaged.

This is the 4th of 6 meetings between these franchises.  Toronto has emerged victorious in the first two encounters while Nos Glorieux defeated them 3-1 in the last matchup.  As if in testament to their dramatic improvement, the Maple Leafs have been selected to participate in the January 1, 2013 Winter Classic in a game vs. original six archrival Detroit Red Wings.  Should be a good one.  When I saw the Heritage Classic in Calgary last winter feauring the Flames vs. the Habs, the attendance was 41 022.  It has been suggested by Gary Bettman that 110, 000 seats will be available for the New Year’s Day game and he followed up that remark by acknowledging that this figure will in no manner come close to approximating the actual ticket demand for the matchup.  WOW!!

The usual suspects are out for Montreal due to injury: Andrei Markov, Ryan White (who is conditioning in Hamilton with the Bulldogs), Brian Gionta, Mike Blunden, and Petteri Nokelainen.  At press time, Yannick Weber is listed as questionable.  Aaron Palushaj and Louie Leblanc have been called up from the AHL-affiliate.    No injuries to report on the Maple Leaf front.

As the Catholic Church has recently encouraged us to do via an ad taken out in francophone newspapers in an effort to support Montreal’s quest for participation in the playoffs: Let Us Pray!

Go Habs Go!!!!

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