Montreal Canadiens (14-7-1) at Atlanta Thrashers (10-9-3)
Many believed that losing Ilya Kovalchuk would be the final nail in the coffin for Don Waddell and the Atlanta Thrashers. Vultures from Winnipeg and Hamilton seemed to be circling around the team, as many believed they would crash to the bottom of the league standings. The post-Kovalchuk era was looking like it was going to resemble that of the Montreal Canadiens after Saint-Patrick left town. It turns out, they’re not that bad, currently sitting 8th in the Eastern Conference.
Arguably, the Thrashers seem to be better off without the Russian superstar. Niclas Bergfors, acquired in the Kovalchuk deal, currently has more goals and points than the high priced Devil. He’s playing with poise, and unlike Kovalchuk, he’s actually making his linemates better. Furthermore, new GM Rick Dudley, was able to swap the first round pick they received in the deal for Dustin Byfuglien, who is showing everyone that his success was not just a byproduct of playing with Kane and Toews. Perhaps the most impressive acquisition of the past summer, was veteran forward Andrew Ladd. The Maple Ridge BC native, who leads his squad with 23 points, is on pace towards his most productive offensive season and has assumed a leadership role with his new team, recently being named Captain. Also notable, were the additions of Brent Sopel and Johnny Oduya, who seem to have stabilized the chronically weak Thrashers d-corps.
Aside from the impressive results of the trade market, the Thrashers scouting system has also proved worthy of some praise. Zach Bogosian is an absolute man-beast, something Canadiens fans are likely to notice on Friday. Evander Kane is producing offensively, with 8 goals so far, and seems to be rounding into a solid two-way forward. Also of note is the play of young netminder and tonight’s starting goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who currently sits 3rd in the league in save percentage and GAA, making everyone forget how the team mishandled Kari Lehtonen. The Thrashers also have promising players in their youth system, such as the uber talented Alexander Burmistrov and the potentially terrorizing Patrice Cormier.
The post Kovy-era, now 20 games into the 2010/2011 season, looks a lot better than it did at the end of last year. The Canadiens are set to face team with balanced scoring, a big and strong blueline, and a red-hot goalie. The biggest key to Friday’s game will undoubtedly be staying out of the penalty box. Not only do the Thrashers have the 3rd best PP in the league, but it’s hard to imagine any of the Habs d-men being able to clear Byfuglien out of the crease, all the while being weary of Tobias Enstrom’s emerging offensive talent at the blue line. The Habs will have to take advantage of their speed, especially when Oduya and Sopel are on the ice. It also wouldn’t hurt being able to draw a few penalties, as the Thrashers PK is amongst the worst in the league. Friday looks like it’s going to be a tough matchup, something that hasn’t been said about the Thrasher in, well ever. The rest of this season, and the future are starting to look very bright in Hotlanta, which is sure to make their 37 or so fans extremely happy.
Meanwhile, in Hab-land, Alex Auld will be tasked with halting the offensively dynamic thrashers. The Cold Lake netminder has not played since his 31-save outing versus the Islanders on October 29th and will be getting only his second start of the season. Otherwise, expect very few lineup changes from Coach Martin tonight, as Mathieu Darche is slated to play while Dustin Boyd and Yannick Weber will again be healthy scratches.
Puck drop is at 7:30 pm. The game will be televised on RDS and on Sports South in the United States.