The two points on the line are much more important to the Canadiens, who are holding on to the third place spot in the Atlantic division by one point, while the Penguins currently have a stranglehold on the Metropolitan division.
The Penguins will be without the services of Paul Martin, Kris Letang or Beau Bennett, but they should have the upper hand on the Habs, who lost to the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 in overtime Wednesday night and didn’t look very good doing it. If it weren’t for Brian Gionta‘s goal with only 29 seconds remaining in regulation, the Canadiens would have been shut out in their opening game back from the Olympic break.
Playing back-to-back games is difficult at any point in the season, especially when traveling is involved, but having to play back-to-back games after a three-week break is far more difficult.
It’s impossible to determine how certain players spent their down time during the break. NHL players are workhorses; that’s why they are where they are, but it’s difficult to blame a player for spending time with his family, which is very limited over the course of the season. In doing so, some players come back rusty and not quite up to full speed.
Montreal sent eight players off to Sochi and represented six different countries (USA, Canada, Russia, Slovakia, Switzerland and Czech Republic). It’s underrated how difficult it can be for players to readjust from the Olympic style of play back toward their team’s game plan on a smaller NHL surface. It may not sound like an Olympic rink being 10 feet longer and 13 feet wider would make much of a difference, but to players at the professional level, every inch matters.
The Penguins themselves sent seven players to the Olympics, but all seven represented powerhouse national teams (USA, Canada, Russia and Finland). The styles between Russia, Canada, Finland and the United States are far more similar than that of Slovakia and Switzerland, which two Canadiens have to adjust back from.
It’s simply going to take the Canadiens who went over to Russia for the Olympics more time to adjust than the Penguins’ Olympians.
In the game against Detroit last night, the Habs struggled to maintain consistent pressure in the offensive zone and were held to just 17 shots in regulation. The Canadiens didn’t deserve a point last night but luckily got away with one due to Gionta’s highlight reel backhand that beat Jimmy Howard top shelf on the far side.
I would be willing to bet all ten of my fingers typing this right now that the Canadiens will not beat the Penguins if they can only manifest 17 shots in 60 minutes. Even with all the injuries the Penguins are dealing with, they are a far deeper team than the Red Wings and have far more goal scoring prowess up front. Marc-Andre Fleury is no slouch in net, either.
The Penguins’ strategy needs to consist of the top two lines getting as many pucks to the net as possible, while the bottom two lines grind down the Canadiens and set a fast, physical pace of play.
Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz should know by now how to get pucks by Canadiens goaltender Carey Price – they just practiced with him for three straight weeks as a part of Team Canada.
The outcome will be decided on two aspects: the play of Price and whether or not the Habs can capitalize on their scoring opportunities.
If Price falters and the same offensive effort that was on display last night against Detroit shows up tonight against the Penguins, it could get ugly early.
Shane Darrow is an NHL writer for Rant Sports. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @ShaneDarrow