The Ottawa Senators visit the Bell Centre in Montreal tonight to take on the Canadiens in a battle of the last two unbeaten teams in the Eastern Conference. For the Canadiens, this first home game will be the opportunity to show their young talent to the home crowd and showcase the resilience they’ve displayed in their first three encounters.
Beating the Senators will be no easy task. This is a team, under GM John Muckler, that has added much needed grit to a spectacularly talented team, thereby making it the most rounded in the league. The trade sending Marian Hossa to the Thrashers in return for Dany Heatley was criticized by some, particularly since Heatley is something of a question mark considering his mental and physical state following the auto collision which claimed the life of teammate and friend Dan Snyder. However the undisputed fact is that Ottawa got the better player – they just have to coax him back to the top of his game. Thus far, skating on a line with Jason Spezza, another incredibly talented young player, all has been smiles with the two collecting 13 points in a mere three games, including three goals apiece.
For the Canadiens to challenge tonight, they’ll have to find a way of containing this dynamic duo or risk losing their first of the campaign. It’s a daunting task, though one that Claude Julien is certainly eager to prove his club can accomplish. Thus far, he’s attempted to play strength on strength, and therefore the line of Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev and Alex Perezhogin could very well draw the assignment. Otherwise, Radek Bonk and his linemates Jan Bulis and Niklas Sundstrom will take the task in hand.
If successful, there are still plenty of other options the Senators draw upon to inflict damage on the Canadiens. Players like Daniel Alfredsson and Martin Havlat are just about as talented as the first pair, and equally as likely to get the job done at any given time. This is a deep Senators club, and only a strong team defensive concept will offer the Habs the chance at victory. It’s even tough to predict lines for the Senators, as already early this season they’ve shuffled things around. Brandon Bochenski and Alfredsson have both taken shifts on the first line.
While the Habs still find Richard Zednik on the sidelines, the Senators will also have to deal with the injury bug as Mike Fisher is out with a shoulder injury. Other than that, both teams have been fortunate in the early season.
Defensively, the Senators can boast two of the game’s best in solid Wade Redden and monster Zdeno Chara. While Redden is the steady two-way star the Sens envisioned when they drafted him, Chara has been a growing surprise since plucking him from the Islanders. His extremely long reach will allow only the best at protecting the puck any chance of maneuvering in the Ottawa zone. And while his has a huge stature, he’s still far more mobile than one might assume at first glance.
Fiery Ray Emery will be between the pipes for the Sens, and while some may feel Montreal is getting a break from Hasek, the simple truth is that Ottawa is drooling at having two extremely solid goaltenders. One of the only reasons Emery hasn’t seen more action in the NHL is his temper; he’s been known to drop the glove and blocker a time or two.
Brian MCGrattan is another who has the ability to pound the opposition into submission, and assuming he dresses for the game on this evening, Montreal should counter with Raitis Ivanans for potential pugilistic encounters.
There aren’t many weaknesses on this Ottawa club, so the key to any gameplan will be striking hard and fast and maintaining momemtum. The seventh player, the fans, will probably have quite a lot to say in the gaining and maintenance of momentum as, on opening night, they should be very fired up. At least if the Habs fall behind, we know they have the ability to come back, as they’ve displayed already this season. In Beating the Leafs, they had to come back twice, including late in the third.
For the Habs to win this one, they must be impeccable five-on-five and must produce on the power play. They also have to continue their impressive run on the penalty kill, and that will be a much larger challenge on this night with the Senators extremely skilled lineup.
With both teams at 3-0-0 and no ties in the NHL, something has to give on this night. Perhaps Montreal should be a little worried considering the quality of its victories in the early season, however it should be noted that they’ve steadily improved. Ottawa, meanwhile, seems to be firing on all cylinders, which would suggest that, for a victory, the Canadiens must bring their ‘A’ game. Certainly, this is the biggest test by far for this young season.