The last time the Bruins met the Canadiens, things were not going well for the Black and Gold. They were at risk of being shut out for the third straight game before scoring in the waning minutes. Still, the B’s lost in a shootout to a division rival struggling in a similar fashion.
Now, things are different — thankfully, if you’re on the Bruins’ side. Boston is seeking its third consecutive win as it crosses the border to face the hated Habs in Friday night’s Centennial Game. The Canadiens may be celebrating their 100th anniversary, but this season, there hasn’t been much to celebrate. Montreal currently sits in fourth place in the Northeast Division, seven points behind the second-place Bruins.
The last thing the Canadiens want is to lose to one of its most hated rivals during its 100th anniversary celebration.
Here to fill us in on all things Canadiens is Eric Meliton of Oh Canadiens.
NESN.com: The story seems to have changed drastically for the Bruins since they last faced the Canadiens in that they seem to have finally corrected their scoring woes. The Habs, however, are still struggling. What’s the problem?
Eric Meliton: The Habs’ scoring woes have continued as the team is battling the injury bug. They have lost key members of their team early on in the season, such as stud defenseman Andrei Markov. However, more recently, the team has experienced a rash of injuries to its top forwards, losing Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez for extended periods of time. Gomez has just returned, but Gionta is expected to be out indefinitely with a broken foot. To compensate, the team has had to juggle lines to find scoring chemistry and has elevated Tomas Plekanec to the top unit.
NESN.com: Can you tell us a bit about Plekanec and how important he is to this team?
E.M.: Plekanec had a very disappointing 2008-09 campaign (20 goals, 19 assists, 39 points) and the team lost confidence in his offensive abilities. He opened the 2009-10 campaign with lowered expectations as the free agent acquisitions of Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri and Scott Gomez were meant to compensate for Plekanec’s previously lackluster season.
Despite these changes to the roster, Plekanec has been a stabilizing force thus far (reaching 25 points in 27 games) and his play has been one of the few bright spots on a team that has struggled to find consistency. Some experts believe it might be linked to the fact that Plekanec is an unrestricted free agent in 2010-11 and hence is fighting for a better contract.
However, Plekanec is the team’s best player so far and signs are pointing to the Habs looking to re-sign him for the future. He is a solid two-way center and has the speed and playmaking abilities to be the No. 1 center that he was expected to become. However, without stronger peripheral players on the top scoring lines, the team still has many holes to fill.
NESN.com: When these two teams last met, the Habs won 2-1 in a shootout. What was the difference-maker in that game?
E.M.: Carey Price was the main difference-maker in that game. He was struggling leading up to that game yet managed to steal the win in Boston with a 42-save performance. The Habs were grossly outplayed and out-chanced, yet managed to win in a shootout. The Canadiens have been both overtime and shootout specialists this season (8-2 record) and this has kept them competitive in the Northeast Division.
NESN.com: Describe the sentiment surrounding this team currently as it has struggled out to a 12-14-2 record (with Thursday night’s loss to Buffalo) in the first two months of this season. Is there any kind of panic?
E.M.: The media in Montreal keeps the team under constant scrutiny and the fanfare for the Canadiens is intense. The Canadiens are celebrating their Centennial season versus the Bruins on Friday night, but the last year leading up to this game has seen a great deal of ups and downs. With the quick exit in the 2009 playoffs at the hands of the Bruins, combined with the overhaul of the team roster during the offseason (which saw the departure of team leaders Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev), the Canadiens have been on an emotional roller coaster.
Off-ice distractions along with key injuries have been the biggest negative factors in 2009-10. The team has not shown any signs of panic, but it has struggled to remain consistent. If the Habs can get some bodies back in their lineup in the coming weeks, a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference may not be out of the question, as similar challenges have plagued many NHL clubs thus far.
NESN.com: Carey Price started every game for the Habs in November but has little to show for it in terms of wins. The team obviously hasn’t been scoring many goals to help him out, so will it be a struggle for him to combat the frustration?
E.M.: On the surface, it looks as if Price has rebuilt his confidence. His level of play has been elevated and he has had some stellar performances in November. As mentioned, the team has lost some games due to a lack of scoring consistency, but Price and backup Jaroslav Halak are a good tandem overall.
Halak could become a trade asset if the team needs to acquire some help on the offensive side. Since Price is viewed by many as the franchise goaltender, his job is safe in Montreal, despite his recent woes. Price possesses elite skill and is a strong positional goalie. His mental confidence seems to be the key issue moving forward, and that lack of confidence directly impacts his success. Playing in a massive hockey market has put more of a burden on Price’s shoulders and the comparisons with the elite goaltenders from Montreal’s past (such as Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden) doesn’t help much either.
NESN.com: When do the Canadiens expect to see some of their guys back in action, and will this help them significantly as they try to turn things around?
E.M.: It seems as if Andrei Markov’s recovery from a lacerated ankle is going well and he may be back earlier than expected (projected return was February 2010). Markov is aiming to return in time for the Winter Olympics. There has been no confirmed timeline for the return of Brian Gionta, while defenseman Hal Gill has jumped back and forth from the injured-reserve list. Scott Gomez is back from his nagging injury, as is forward Andrei Kostitsyn.
If these players can remain healthy and both Price and Halak can put together a strong run of solid goaltending, this team could sneak back up the standings in the Eastern Conference. With the solid play of Cammalleri and Plekanec carrying the team, more help will still be needed from those returning from the infirmary.
Eric Meliton is an accomplished writer from the environmental sector who is working toward making a reputable name in the sports media marketplace. He is an associate editor for Fanball.com, providing in-depth analysis for the NHL and is also the Montreal Canadiens correspondent for the Fanball Blog Network. In addition, Eric is a freelance writer for various environmental and sports card magazines.
Thansk again to Eric, and be sure to check out Oh Canadiens.