The Montreal Canadiens are in Pittsburgh tonight, to face the flightless Penguins in their arena, the Igloo, in their fourth and last match this season. This promises to be as close to a playoff game as you’ll see before April 11, the actual start of the NHL playoffs. On paper, the match should be very lopsided towards Pittsburgh. They currently rank a solid 5th position in the conference with 88 points, one point behind Ottawa with a game in hand. They are also on a 3 game winning streak, are undefeated in their last 5 games, and are coming off an impressive 3-0 shutout of the Devils in New Jersey. However, the Habs have defeated the Penguins twice (once in overtime) in three matches, outscoring them 14-11; their only loss was to a shootout in their previous game in Pittsburgh. The Canadiens are tied for 10th position in the conference with the New York Rangers, in a very tight race for a final play spot. The Habs have 76 points, only 1 point behind the 9th placed Maple Leafs, and 2 points behind Carolina & the New York Islanders, in the 7th & 8th positions respectively.
A lineup with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin make up a formidable opponent, particularly at home. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury always plays well against the Habs, and other young francophone players Michel Ouellet and Maxim Talbot play particularly inspired hockey again the Bleu-Blanc et Rouge. With two new forward additions before the trade deadline of George Laraques and Gary Roberts, the Penguins have added some veteran toughness up front.
The Habs will rely again on big contributions from the likes of Sheldon Souray, who leads the team with two goals and 3 assists in the team previous 3 games against Pittsburgh. Tomas Plekanec, Alexei Kovalev and Michael Ryder have also been big contributors with 4 points each. The Habs expect to be missing Kovalev, who is still suffering from the effects of vertigo, as well as Alexander Perezhogin & Radek Bonk. None of the players accompanied the team on their flight to Pittsburgh. In the absence of these veterans, youngster such as Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse and Andrei Kostitsyn have all picked up their games. Latendresse has 3 goals in his last 2 games, which Kostitsyn has 3 assists in his last 2 games. Plekanec has managed a goal and 2 assists in his last two games.
For the Habs to be successful again Pittsburgh, they will not only have to out work their opposition, but be patient with their offensive chances. The Penguins are know for their high power offence, but are not immune to a good counter attack when they turn over the puck. They are going to require their captain, Saku Koivu, to start producing more offence, as he’s only managed one assist and a minus 5 in his last 6 games; however, he has registered 14 shots, so the effort has been there. In addition, rookie Maxim Lapierre will be counted on heavily, as he has managed to start a strong rivalry against Crosby, during his shadowing assignments in their last two games.
Starting Goalies: Montreal, David Aebischer; Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury
Habs Notes: Maxim Lapierre & Guillaume Latendresse credit their recent good play to a new good luck charm. While in St. Louis last Saturday, both players recovered a yellow goalie mask from the ice, likely from fans who threw the items to in response to their play. Each player has been keeping the mask in their hockey bags for luck….There has been no change in the injury status of Alexander Perezhogin, who continues to suffer from concussion like symptoms since he suffered a puck shot off of the side of his head earlier this month. He is listed as day to day.
Penguins Notes: Rookie Jordan Staal has been extremely successful in a penalty killing role this season. Not only does he lead the league with 7 short handed tallies, but he has also set an NHL record for rookies….In the game versus the Devils, Sidney Crosby earned a two minute minor penalty for too many men on the ice, in an unusual way. After a face-off in the New Jersey end of the ice, he was accidentally clipped in the mouth by his teammate, ex Hab Mark Recchi. Feeling he may be injured, he skated towards his bench. At that time, the puck came in the vicinity of his feet and Crosby instinctively kicked it which drew the penalty, as a replacement player had already hopped on to the ice….George Laraque has been suffering from back spasms for most of the week. He is listed as day to day, but has claimed he is healthy now and hopes to be in the lineup tonight….