RECORDS: Canadiens 14-10-5 Hawks 9-16-5
PUCK DROP: 5pm
TV: NBCSN for the locals, NHL Network for those who aren’t
CATCHING TORCHES FOR SOME REASON: Habs Eyes On The Prize
Yadda yadda yadda Original Six matchup blah blah blah. We’re contractually obligated to mention that every time the Quebecois wash up on Madison St. Whatever allure that sort of thing has, and it still has something if only a little, is probably mostly washed away by the utter incompetence of the Hawks these days. And it might sting a little more with the Canadiens, who used to be as hapless and directionless, might have turned things around a bit.
We’ll start with the main headline for the Hawks, which is the return of Connor Murphy from his back-iotomy, which is what doc said he needed. You know things are pretty dire when you greatly anticipate the return of Murphy, who simply be maintaining the form of “fine” last year was pretty much the best Hawks defenseman. He’s better than pretty much everyone aside from Jokiharju and maybe Duncan Keith though, and his return will be welcomed.
He does seem to smooth out some things. He gives Gustafsson a partner who can cover for his constant meanderings and delusions, and they dovetailed nicely at the end of last year. It keeps Keith with Jokiharju, which I’m not a huge fan of but don’t really see a way around. Maybe at some point Murphy pairs with The Har Ju, but that leaves Keith with only problematic partnerships. For now, let’s just enjoy the two second-pairings the Hawks might actually have tonight.
Also it keeps Manning and Seabrook on strict third-pairing duty, where they can still do some damage (evidenced clearly by Thursday night in Sin City), but this is what they’re barely cut out for these days. I don’t like it any more than you.
Though what Murphy is now being 6-5 and having back surgery in a job that requires a fair amount of bending over is a thought not for the weak of heart or stomach. Let’s run that kitten over when we get to it.
For the rest of the lineup, it appears Head Coach Arthur Fortune is going with the “pairs” system, where Toews and Saad, Anisimov and Kane, and Strome and Top Cat will be continually lashed together an they’ll make up the other wing as they go along. I guess this is what happens when you’re short on wingers.
Pivoting to Les Habitants. Montreal started the year on fire, with Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Tomas Tatar, Paul Byron, and some others shooting the lights out at a pace that was never going to be sustainable. That’s started to cool, and the Habs with it, however the underlying structure beneath that looks solid.
While Marc Bergevin may be unable to tie his shoes or spell “cat,” he has constructed a forward unit that is basically four lines of nimble, skilled forwards. They have rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi and fellow Finn Arturi Lehkonen on the third line, which is pretty neat. Drouin and Domi anchor the top unit (even if Drouin is never going to be a center), and Brendan Gallagher, Tatar, and Phillip Danault make for quite the second unit.
Even old horse Claude Julien has changed his…well, horses don’t have stripes but just go with me here, as the Habs are playing faster and freer than previous iterations. They have a bunch of gnats up top, so why not let them roam wild? Also, the defense is still spotty, so asking them to do less is the way to go. Jeff Petry has thrived under this system, and the returning Shea Weber will benefit from being asked merely to get the puck up quickly instead of picking out precise passes or moving all that much.
However, the foundation is creaky, because Carey Price has been REEL BAD. November was a real disaster for him, with a .888 SV% over the month. He’s only rebounded a touch in December, with four starts amassing a .912. The Habs have some of the strongest metrics as a team in the league, thanks to their speed and Julien’s tweaks, but if Price can’t get even to league average than there’s only so far you can go. The Habs currently have a two-point gap for the last playoff spot, and three on any team that’s going to matter. They’ll need Price to come in from the woods to hold onto it.
So here’s the thing. Vegas is filled with quick forwards who play fast. The Hawks usually get their lunch handed to them by that outfit. So do they by other teams who boast that. They looked better on Thursday but were undone by Seabrook and Crawford letting them down, simply. They’ll need another effort on that level to break their duck against a Habs team still feeling itself a bit. Don’t hold your breath.
Game #31 Preview Suite