Fun in the Sun: Habs face back-to-back games against Panthers, Bolts

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The Montreal Canadiens will go into tonight's game against the Florida Panthers with a lot of confidence. Not only did they beat two teams that were ahead of them this past weekend, not only did they secure a playoff spot (for now), but they took out their revenge against two teams that embarrassed them earlier this month.

After losing to the New Jersey Devils at the Bell Centre in a 2-1 contest on Janaury 9th, they exacted their revenge this past Friday night, controlling the play for most of the game and walking away with 2 points in a 3-1 victory. The following night, they exacted revenge on the New York Rangers, who wiped the floor with the Habs only 6 night before the Saturday night encounter, in a 6-2 Sunday night loss. But this past Saturday, the Canadiens were the ones with the mops, tossing the Rags (no pun intended) out of the Bell Centre with their tail between their legs, a goalie driven out of the net and a total of 6 goals against in the 6-0 shutout.

As a result of these last two games, the Canadiens have claimed the 7th spot in the east, tied with the 8th place Rangers and 6th place Flyers (who have 1 more win and 2 games in hand). There is, however, no rest for the weary, as the Canadiens prepare for another action packed week. Only one or two of these games need to go in the favor of the other team, as there are only 3 points that separate the Canadiens from the 13th place Lightning (their opponents tomorrow night), a spot the Canadiens almost got too cozy with just last week.

Odds are that the Eastern conference playoff standings are likely to stay this way until the very end of the season. No team is really good enough to break away and secure the 6th, 7th, or even 8th spot before April, but also, not team is bad enough to join the likes of the Leafs and Hurricanes in the cellar.

Few games remain until the Canadiens and most of the players in the league takes the Olympic break, but the momentum the Canadiens and the teams around them take going into the break will be huge down the final stretch of 20 or so games in March and April.

Zeroing in on the Canadiens' schedule, the next three weeks are very important. All but one of their 10 pre-Olympic games (Vancouver visits the Bell Centre next week) are in the Eastern Conference. 6 of those games are against teams currently involved in the 6th-to-13th place logjam, including two uber-important games against the Bruins, and two just-as-important games against the Flyers. The other three are against the Penguins, Caps and Sens, three teams that find themselves comfortably in the top 5 teams in the East.

The Canadiens can beat every one of these teams. They've certainly proved that in the past. The question is, will they ice the team that destroyed the Devils and Rangers this past weekend, or will they look more like the team that made Habs fans cringe in most of the first 50 games of the season?

This week's Floridian road trip is key in that regard. If the Habs can translate the confidence they took out of the weekend's games, they might get on one hell of a hot streak, starting with the Panthers and Lightning. If not, they're once again going to be in trouble.

Many have said since Saturday that those two games were the turning point of the season. This blogger believes that these next two games are just as important, and can have just as big an effect on the team and over their play for the next 10 games.

Coach Jacques Martin has handled this thought with a calm demeanor, giving the Canadiens the day off today and on Sunday, and most of the afternoon yesterday off, to enjoy the weather (unfortunately, the weather hasn't cooperated, but alas..)

NEWS AND NOTES

Some news to report on the line-up front:

- http://habsinsideout.com/main/28194>Ben Maxwell will make his season debut for the Habs on the 3rd line, surprisingly centering Max Lapierre and Mat Darche, who have found some chemistry in the last couple of games. Maxwell was called up after both Pacioretty and D'Agostini were sent to the Bulldogs.

- Speaking of Pacioretty, Francois Gagnon revealed on the Team 990 this morning that he believes that the youngster will remain in Hamilton for the remainder of the season. Apparently the team has decided that he wasn't ready and will look for him to seek the tutilage of Guy Boucher before getting another chance next year. I don't know why it took them 53 games to figure this out.

- As for D'Agostini, he is on a ''2 week conditioning stint'' because the team is afraid to lose him on re-entry waivers if they decided to bring him back up. He will play his two weeks and Gainey, Martin, and Boucher will re-evaluate his status at that point.

- The ''first line'' of Pouliot, Gomez and Gionta will remain intact tonight. Travis Moen joins Cammalleri and Plekanec line 1B (They really need Kostitsyn back...) and what remains is Metropolit, Bergeron and Sergei for the 4th line. Expect Sergei to jump up to the Plekanec line as the game progresses (if needed).

- As reported this weekend, Paul Mara hasn't made the Florida trip, out with another upper body injury.

- Jaroslav Halak obviously gets the start in goal.

STATS

*Note: Injured players are omitted from stat leaders.

-- HABS PANTHERS
Goals: Cammalleri (26) Weiss (19)
Assists: Plekanec (39) Weiss (25)
Points: Plekanec (51) Weiss (44)
Plus/Minus: Cammalleri (+10) Seidenberg (+3)
Time on Ice: Markov (23:54 per game) Seidenberg (22:50 per game)
PIMs: Lapierre (50) Allen (60)
Shots: Cammalleri(185) Frolik (146)
SVP: Halak (.927) Vokoun (.931)
GAA: Halak (2.45) Vokoun (2.37)
Record: Halak (14-7-1 21GP) Vokoun (17-15-9 42GP)
Injuries: Andrei Kostitsyn (lower body, 6 weeks)
Paul Mara (upper body, DTD)
Nathan Horton (broken leg, 4-6 weeks)
Steve Reinpreicht (foot, DTD)
David Booth (concussion, indefinitely)
Last 10: 4-4-2, Won 2 5-3-2, Won 1
Standings: 25-23-5, T6th, 55Pts, 53GP 22-21-9, 11th, 53PTS, 52GP
GF/GA per game: 2.57GF, 22nd/ 2.68GA, 12th 2.67GF, 16th/ 2.81GA, 18th
PP/PK %: 24.7%, 2nd / 84.3%, 7th 16.9%, 22nd / 81.0%, 18th

WHAT THE STATS SAY:

Don't ask me how the Panthers are 16th in goals scored. Despite having a few good goalscorers, they consistently have trouble scoring goals. How else could you explain Vokoun's amazing stats but the Panthers struggle to win games? With Horton out tonight, Booth still out from the vicious Richards hit earlier in the season, and Reinpreicht questionable for tonight, this game is the Canadiens' to lose. The powerplay will once again be key, as will the contributions of the top 2 lines.

FINAL PREDICTION: Habs 3 - Panthers 2

They'd probably have more of a chance if I wrote another angry blog, but truth be told, I don't see how they could legitimately lose this game. Then again, this team makes no sense, so we'll see.

LINKS

- Jean Beliveau getting better after mild stroke suffered last week (National Post).

- Laraque to play in Sweden? It's a possibility, according to Habs Inside/Out. AIK Stockholm is apparently in talks with the Habs to allow Laraque to play for their team. Laraque has said that he would play for them for free, if they were to cover his incidental costs.

- Anatomy of a Breakup: Georges Laraque (Bleacher Report).

- NHL Gamecenter free for one night tonight!

- Good discussion on Cormier incident

- My thoughts on this weekend's games in full, in case you missed it.

AND FINALLY...

TWITTER FOLLOWER OF THE DAY

Introducing a new feature in my game blogs. As much as I can, I will be mini-profiling one lucky Twitter buddy and telling all of you to follow them and visit their sites.

Today's lucky winner is Kyle Roussel. Kyle has been commenting on our blogs lately and his contributions are well appreciated. Kyle is a thoughtful, balanced Habs fan and a great blogger himself.

You can follow Kyle on twitter HERE.
You can check out his blog and his great posts HERE.

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Enjoy the game!

Prax
www.thecheckingline.com
www.twitter.com/thecheckingline

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