Since the puck finally dropped on this shortened season, followers of the NHL have been pointing to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins as the top teams to beat in the Eastern Conference. While the Penguins and Bruins have certainly performed well enough to deserve such credit, there is a third team in the East that has separated themselves from the rest of the pack.
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That third team is of course the Montreal Canadiens. With only fifteen games remaining in the regular season, it would appear the team that everyone was expecting to eventually crash may just stick around the top of the standings right into the playoffs.
For the second time this month the Canadiens played against Boston and Pittsburgh on back to back days and both times have shown they belong in the same category as the so called beasts of the east. The first of these back to backs occurred over the first weekend of March. A slugfest with the Pens and a solid game by Peter Budaj against the Bruins resulted in the Habs coming away with three points on an overtime loss in Pittsburgh and a win at home over the Bruins.
This week, with first place in the Northeast Division on the line once again, one bad period was not enough to keep Montreal from the top of the division. A great game against Pittsburgh was spoiled by an excellent performance from both Pens goaltenders Marc Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun. The two combined for a rare split shutout after Fleury was knocked out of the game late in the second period. The Habs fired 37 shots on goal but were stymied at every turn by the Pens netminders and a beautiful shot by Sidney Crosby was enough to lead the Pens to a 1-0 victory.
Even though the Montreal Canadiens were shut out in Pittsburgh they showed an ability to skate with the first overall team in the East, hanging tight until the final buzzer. They created chances throughout the entire game, playing a disciplined style and rolling all four lines to keep the energy level very high.
Heading into Boston playing on back to back nights against tough competition it may have been easy to forgive the team for coming out flat at the beginning of the game. However that would not be the case as Montreal was staked to a 1-0 lead by former Bruin (and former but returned Hab) Michael Ryder less than 5 minutes into the game. A rocket from the point by P.K. Subban would make it 2-0 less than three minutes into the second frame. Unfortunately, the Habs would take the rest of the second period off.
A four goal outburst by the Bruins would give them a 4-2 lead heading into the third period. After being shutout the night before by the Pens and fresh off blowing a 2-0 lead, surely the Habs would fold and admit defeat. Luckily for Habs fans though, this is not your 2011-2012 Montreal Canadiens that would not have bothered to show up for the third at all.
Ryder’s second of the night on an excellent feed from Tomas Plekanec brought the Habs back into this one less than four minutes into the third. Peter Budaj would enter the Habs goal at the beginning of the third period and was fantastic in relief. His only blemish coming on a Tyler Seguin breakaway goal midway through the third that would put the B’s up 5-3. Less than 30 seconds after Seguin seemingly put the final touches on the Habs, Brendan Gallagher would bring them within one once again. Gallagher stuck with a puck that took a sideways bounce off the face of Bruins defenceman Dennis Seidenberg and tucked it behind Tuukka Rask to make it 5-4.
Montreal would continue to press for the tying goal until, with only 8 seconds remaining, an Andrei Markov point shot would find its was into the back of the net off Zdeno Chara’s stick. Overtime would solve nothing and Budaj would enter the shootout having stopped 14 of 15 shots fired his way. He was even better in the shootout as he stopped all 6 Bruins shooters, biding enough time for Gallagher to finally end it on Montreal’s sixth shot.
It was not a perfect pair of games, being shut out against the Pens and allowing 4 goals in one period against the Bruins are not what Habs fans like to see. However, keeping the highest scoring team in the NHL to one goal and fighting back in the third period on the second night of back to back games to grab two points from their fiercest of rivals is exactly what makes this team a contender.
With the Penguins loading up and adding Jarome Iginla to an already stacked roster will make them even more difficult to catch in the standings. However, this year’s version of the Montreal Canadiens, which was counted out before the season even began, remains second overall in the Eastern Conference with just 15 games left to play. Perhaps General Manager Marc Bergevin will add to the roster at the upcoming trade deadline to give them an extra boost to keep pace in the conference. Even if he doesn’t , don’t count this team out, a season ago they kept finding ways to lose, this team keeps finding ways to win.
Make room Bruins and Penguins, you have some company at the top of East.
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