The seventh place Montreal Canadiens take on the ninth place New York Islanders Saturday afternoon in New York in a match with plenty playoff implications. A win in regulation for Montreal would give the Habs some breathing room over the teams currently on the outside looking in. However, a win for the Islanders would bring them into a tie with Montreal with a game in hand. With so much at stake, expect both teams to bring their “A” game.
The Habs were missing five regulars last Thursday when they beat the Nashville Predators in a shootout. Of the five, only Christopher Higgins and Craig Rivet may suit up for the Canadiens to face the Islanders. Rivet was previously scheduled to make his return Saturday afternoon, but the 32-year-old rearguard will likely test his conditioning during practice to see if he is strong enough to go after recovering from pneumonia.
The Habs will have to make do without 19-year-old rookie Guillaume Latendresse Saturday afternoon. Coach Guy Carbonneau announced Friday that Latendresse will be a healthy scratch. The move shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, not even Latendresse. He has only a single point, a goal scored against Ottawa on February 8th, over the last 14 games. The scratch marks somewhat of a turn of events in favor of Andrei Kostitsyn who battled Latendresse for the final roster spot in training camp. Kostitsyn will skate on the Habs’ second line tomorrow with Tomas Plekanec and Sergei Samsonov.
This is the third of four meetings this season between the two teams. Thus far, the series is split with both sides taking a 4-2 win earlier in the season. The Islanders won the last meeting between the two in a game that saw Guillaume Latendresse check Radek Martinek into the boards hard enough to break Martinek’s leg as he fell to the ice. Radek Bonk and Mark Streit were the only players to score for Montreal while both Miroslav Satan and Trent Hunter had two for the Islanders. Hunter’s second goal proved the winner in the 4-2 win on earlier this month.
For Higgins, Long Island is home. The 23-year-old, who grew up in Smithtown, has always been sure to bring his top game in front of friends and family in New York. In five career games against the Islanders, Higgins has 4 goals and a plus/minus rating of +2. However, after suffering a shoulder injury in the third period of Tuesday’s 4-3 win over the Washington Capitals, it is unsure whether Higgins will be strong enough to play.
Right-winger Michael Ryder has been on a tear lately, having scored 4 goals over the passed three games, and at least one in each of those games. His hard work has been matched by Koivu who has also been playing much better hockey. The Captain has seven points during the Habs’ current three game winning streak, evidence that Montreal is a team that lives and dies with the play of their captain.
Jaroslav Halak will likely get a call in nets on Saturday for his forth consecutive start since being called up by Montreal to fill in for Cristobal Huet. He has yet to lose a game and had his first taste of NHL overtime and shootouts Thursday in Nashville. Rick DiPietro will more than likely get the call in nets for the Islanders. DiPietro, 25, has a record of 26-18-5 with a GAA of 2.63 and a .916 save percentage.
The Montreal Canadiens last saw action in a spirited comeback win over the Nashville Predators. Samsonov tied the game for the Habs with 48 seconds left to send the game to overtime tied at five a piece. Overtime proved nothing, so this game was to be decided in a shootout. Tomas Plekanec and Saku Koivu scored backhanders for the Habs in the shootout, but it was Koivu’s goal that stood as the winner when Peter Forsberg failed to get a shot off when he tripped over himself in front of Halak. Michael Ryder, Mark Streit, Garth Murray, and Alexander Perezhogin also scored for Montreal in regulation.
The Islanders took a full two points out of a shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs last Thursday as well. Trent Hunter scored two goals to erase a 2-0 deficit after Toronto scored twice in a span of two minutes in the second period. The goals were Hunter’s 16th and 17th of the season. Goaltender Rick DiPietro made 27 saves for the win and stopped all three shots he faced in the shootout to allow Randy Robitaille’s goal to stand as the shootout winner.
The fact that Toronto picked up a point in the match wasn’t great news to the Habs, as it brought them two points closer in the ever tight playoff race. Still, Montreal will have an opportunity to increase their lead on Toronto when the two teams meet Monday night at the Bell Centre.
Either way, the Habs’ playoff chances lay within their own hands now. If they want to keep playing into the post-season, they simply need to keep racking up the wins so that near the end of the season, they don’t need to think about checking their rear view mirror.
The Canadiens can continue to add to the distance between them and the others with wins, in what are technically 4-point games, against the Islanders Saturday and the Leafs on Monday.