The Montreal Canadiens look to continue their winning ways tonight as they host the suddenly surging Washington Capitals. Winners of 5 out of their last 6, Montreal currently resides in second place in the Eastern Conference, three points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins and only one point ahead of division rival Boston Bruins.
The Capitals are the third seed in the East thanks to their current four game winning streak which puts them atop the weak Southeast Division. Washington is in a tight battle with the Winnipeg Jets for the division title. Winning the two team race could be the difference between finishing third in the conference with home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and missing out of the playoffs altogether as the Southeast has lagged behind the rest of the conference all season.
With their eyes set on making the playoffs, whether through the backdoor or not, the Caps have been on fire recently. Winners of their last four overall and 8 of their last 10 games they have leapfrogged the Jets and look to take a stranglehold on the division lead tonight against the Habs. Alex Ovechkin has been especially hot for the Caps during their current run, notching 19 points during the ten game span.
Shutting down the sizzling Ovechkin will be an even tougher task as Montreal recently learned that hard hitting defender Alexei Emelin will be out of the lineup for the remainder of the season. Having been paired with Andrei Markov all year, Emelin took his game to a new level this season and was providing the Habs with top four minutes while playing against opponents best lines.
Tonight’s game with the Caps will be the first without Emelin this season which will leave coach Michel Therrien some experimenting to do with his back end to find the right fit once again. Facing Ovechkin’s line that also features top ten scorer and set up man extraordinaire Niklas Backstrom will fall to the very capable hands of Montreal defenders P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges.
With Emelin out of the lineup the problem becomes who will match up against the Caps second line of high scoring center Mike Ribeiro, flanked by hard hitting and scoring wingers Troy Brouwer and Eric Fehr.
It appears that the recently acquired Davis Drewiske will slot into the lineup next to Markov to begin the game and Nathan Beaulieu was recalled from the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs to take Emelin’s roster spot. Beaulieu will begin the game with Bouillon but ice time is up for grabs on the Habs blue line and either of Beaulieu or Bouillon could find themselves taking some shifts with Markov to see if chemistry can be found.
While Emelin is out, Rene Bourque returns to the lineup for the first time after missing 21 games with a concussion. Although they say you can not lose your spot in the lineup due to injury, Bourque will not be reunited with former linemates Plekanec and Brian Gionta. Michael Ryder has been filling that top six role quite admirably since arriving from the Dallas Stars so Bourque will start the game on the fourth line with Jeff Halpern and Travis Moen.
The Habs depth and balance among their forwards is strengthened even further with a healthy Bourque. No one can take a shift off for fear they will be dropped down a line or two with capable replacements below them on the roster.
With the Bruins on their heels and the Penguins in their sights, Montreal enters tonight’s contest searching for two more key points in the standings. Two points tonight could see the Canadiens clinch a playoff spot as early as tomorrow with a little help from unlikely sources.
With a win tonight the only two non playoff teams that could conceivably catch Montreal in standings would be the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers are in action tonight taking their woeful road record with them to Long Island to face the Isles and the Devils are next in action tomorrow night when they face the Bruins. A Habs and Islanders win tonight followed by some help from the Bruins tomorrow would guarantee the Habs playing in the postseason.
If all goes well tonight the only thing separating the Habs from a playoff berth would be a win from the rival Bruins, the team they are currently battling for first in the division. Knowing a playoff seed will be ensured eventually, fans of the Habs will be hoping it does not come tomorrow.
Habs will come out victor