No matter how you slice it, once tonight’s match up between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs has come to a close, we will have a much clearer indication as to whether or not the Habs will have a legitimate chance at the playoffs.
Should Montreal lose the game in regulation, they could potentially be anywhere from two to four points back from the eighth and final playoff spot. Meanwhile, having played more games than most of the teams currently in the race, catching up will be that much more difficult.
There will also be a better idea of where everyone stands tonight as all six teams currently fighting over the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference are in action.
Both Montreal and Toronto dropped key matches Friday night. The Leafs fell 5-1 against the Washington Capitals, a team already out of the playoff race, while the Penguins doubled up the Habs in Pittsburgh 6-3.
Nik Antropov was credited with the sole goal for the Leafs while Andrew Raycroft made 27 saves but allowed five to get by him in the loss.
Montreal on the other hand, failed to cap the rally after Andrei Markov brought the Habs within one goal of tying the game for the second time. The Canadiens came back from a two goal deficit when Christopher Higgins and Sheldon Souray scored on the power play. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Penguins capitalized on their chances at five-on-five and scored a handful on the Habs’ netminder, David Aebischer.
Rookie goalie, Jaroslav Halak, will get the start in goal for Montreal Saturday night at the Bell Centre. The game, which is yet another must-win for the Canadiens, will be a true test for the 21-year-old from Bratislava, Slovakia.
In seven career games, Halak has a 3-4 record, but dropped his last four starts after winning the first three games of his NHL career. Furthermore, in his last outing, Halak was pulled from the net after allowing five goals in only 27 minutes of play. Though, it wouldn’t be fair to place complete blame on the goalie after his team’s porous play versus Atlanta.
The Habs will also welcome back Alex Kovalev to the line up. The Russian winger has sat out the last two games with vertigo, a problem that had the 34-year-old pondering the chances the end of his career. Those thoughts must be all but erased now that Kovalev is good to go, and the Habs will surely welcome back their most talented player for such a crucial game.
Still sitting out will are Radek Bonk (flu) and Alexander Perezhogin (concussion). It is unlikely that Sergei Samsonov will make his return to the line up after being made a healthy scratch for the last three games.
In six games this season against the Leafs, Montreal is 3-2-1. The Leafs, however, hold a slight edge in terms of points with eight to Montreal’s seven thanks to an extra shootout loss. Four of the six games have been decided by a single goal, with Toronto winning the other two games by the scores of 4-1 and 5-1.
In their last meeting, Montreal dominated Toronto but allowed the Leafs to get back into the game after two questionable goals got past Aebischer in the third period. It was the Habs’ powerplay that made the difference in this one, as they capitalized on three of their four opportunities. Tomas Plekanec, Michael Ryder, Mike Johnson, Saku Koivu, and Souray scored for Montreal and Aebsicher turned aside 32 shots for the win.
Montreal will hope that the luck of the Irish will be on their side tonight when they take to the ice against the Toronto on this, St. Patrick’s Day. You have to believe that people will be tuning in across Canada for this one, but not everyone will be tuning out too happy.