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Behind Enemy Lines: Habs are Locked in a Battle for the Atlantic Crown

The Habs come into tonight looking to win the season series and avenge their latest loss to the Red Wings.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

After grabbing an early lead in the Atlantic Division standings, the Montreal Canadiens now find themselves locked in a battle for home ice in the first two rounds. The Canadiens are now just three points ahead of the Ottawa Senators, but with one more game played. Montreal will be playing with energy tonight, as they need points from this game.

The Canadiens now come into tonight off of a loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the second worst team in the East. Al Montoya started between the pipes Tuesday for the Habs, which means that the Canes are likely to face Carey Price. Price has been one of the best goaltenders all season and has the ability to steal a game any night of the week. Price ranks fifth in the league in wins with 33 and his .922 Sv% and will prove to be a strong test for the resurgent Carolina Hurricanes.

One of the biggest stories of the 2016-2017 season came when the Habs fired coach Michel Therrien midway through the season, while the team was in first place in the division, to hire Claude Julien, who was recently fired by the Bruins. Julien is recognized as one of the top coaches in the league, so when he was on the market they acted fast to scoop him up. It was also a case of history repeating itself, as Julien also replaced Therrien behind the Montreal bench in 2003.

Since Julien’s hiring on February 14th, the Canadiens have gone 10-4-1, earning the sixth-best record in the league since then. However, the Habs’ offensive production has fallen since Julien took over, with scoring decreasing from 2.82 to 2.26 goals per game. On top of this, the power play has also taken a hit, falling from 21.4% to 12.8%.

On the flip side, the team has played much better defensively. They now only let up 2.13 GA/g as compared to the 2.55 GA/g under Therrien. This defensive focus has also impacted special teams with the penalty kill improving to 86.7% from 79.4%.

The offensive numbers declining isn’t necessarily Julien’s fault. Shea Weber started the season on a hot streak, earning eight goals and 10 assists in his first 23 games, but since December 1 he has only 23 points. The offense was also seen as an issue for this team since the beginning of the season. GM Marc Bergevin decided to let go of Lars Eller and P.K. Subban and add Weber and Andrew Shaw before the season started. Then at the deadline, instead of adding scoring depth he added Jordie Benn, Steve Ott, Dwight King, and Andreas Martinsen: three fourth line players and a bottom pairing defenseman.

This team isn’t built to win a shootout but then again when you have Carey Price between the pipes you’re rarely going to get in a shootout. This team is now exactly what the Rangers have been in previous years. If you can score three goals on the Habs, you are likely to win the game.

Game Notes:

  • The two teams have so far split the season series with each team winning their home game so far. This game will determine the winner of the series. The Canes trail the all-time series 67-102-25-1, with a 27-58-10-1 road record.
  • Carey Price is 14-5-2 with a 2.04 GAA and three shutouts in 21 career appearances against the canes. Al Montoya is 1-3-1 with a 2.36 GAA in six career appearances against Carolina.
  • Max Pacioretty currently leads the Habs in points (60) and goals (33) in 73 games played. The next closest on the team is Alexander Radulov who is 48 points.
  • The Canadiens dominate possession with a 52.48 cf% which is good for third-best in the league. Their defense is a big reason why. Jeff Petry, Nikita Nesterov, and Andrei Markov all rank in the top 25 defensemen in the league when it comes to possession, with 53.9% or better.