Game 12 Preview: Habs visit the Stanley Cup Champs
Quick blog today as it's been a more-busy-than-usual day at work, but this game is definitely one that deserves a preview. Arguably a marquee match-up, the Canadiens, winners of four in a row at home, are at Mellon Arena right now preparing for their biggest test of the young season: the 2008-2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Many people talk about ''Stanley Cup hangovers''. Even the Detroit Red Wings, a team filled with incredible players that has dominated their division and conference for over a decade, is starting to feel the lull of not only winning a Cup two years ago, but making a second appearance in a cup final in as many years. One could blame injuries and free agent losses, mediocre goaltending, every team in their division getting stronger, and other things for the Red Wings struggling early on in the season, but you can't help but align yourself with the argument that the Wings simply don't want to do the simple things that it takes to win games anymore. They've won so much over such a long period of time that maybe they're starting to take it easy. Maybe they think winning just comes naturally to them and they don't have to work for it. And they're suffering because of this.
Most would imagine that the same would apply to the Penguins, if not moreso than it does for the Wings. The Penguins worked their way to a Stanley Cup final berth two years ago after a long period of time where they didn't even make the playoffs or could even fathom a chance of seeing post-season action. The team was almost sold to Jim Ballsilie and moved! They lost to the Detroit Red Wings but no one was worried. The Pens were still very young and very talented and their window was still wide open. If anything, losing to the Red Wings would motivate them, make them hungrier to earn vengeance by winning their own Stanley Cup.
And it did motivate them. It did make them hungrier. It did make them better. A year removed from coming this close to winning the Stanley Cup, they finally won it, and they won it with most of the same players from the year before, and they won it against the team that beat them not twelve months earlier.
So, logic would dictate that if a team led by Mike Babcock, Niclas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Henrik Zetterberg, and all the other incredible names you find within their line-up, can have a Stanley Cup hangover, then it would only make sense that the pens would feel the lull as well. That their young, highly paid players would no longer want to do the simple things, would no longer want to listen to the coach or work hard.
Fat chance (and no, that wasn't a Kyle Wellwood Is So Fat joke!)
The Pittsburgh Penguins are atop of the Eastern Conference with a 9-2-0 record. The only team that has more points than they do is the ridiculous Colorado Avalanche. They lost their last game but were riding a 6 game win streak not so long ago.
Marc-André Fleury is playing like a goalie who deserves a Stanley Cup ring, and deserves to start in goal with Team Canada next February over the likes of Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur. His .917 SVP and 2.19 GAA speak for themselves.
While superstar forwards Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby aren't exactly leading the league in scoring like they might be used to, they have 4-9-13 and 6-5-11 goal-assist-point totals, respectively, which is far from being bad, even if it doesn't put them in the 100 point radius (although both might hit it when it's all said and done).
With Sergei Gonchar out until late November, Crosby and Malkin are flanked by the emerging Alex Goligoski on defense, who has 3 goals and 6 assists for 9 points in 11 games, as well as Kristopher Letang, who has 5 assists, showing that the Penguins have defensive depth.
They're also showing that the losses of Montreal Canadien Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi haven't hurt them that much defensively, as Goligoski and Letang have joined Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Brooks Orpik in picking up the slack. Said losses might hurt them more than it what you see now in the long run, but a good team with a good coach like Dan Bylsma will adjust.
And the Penguins certainly aren't a two-player team when it comes to their forwards. Bill Guerin, Tyler Kennedy, Ruslan Fedotenko, Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Matt Cooke round out a more than serviceable top 9. And that's excluding the man who scored both goals in the Stanley Cup winning game last year, Max Talbot. When he returns, the Penguins will look even better.
Pittsburgh definitely stands as a tough test for this crew of Montreal players that are just starting to find their nichs.
So what do the Habs have to do to win this game?
For starters, Jaroslav Halak needs to be more than solid. He's been up and down in his four straight victories, despite what the record says, and could stand to be surprised by the Penguins' snipers if he's not next to perfect at the start of the game. That is evidenced by the 4 goals he gave up against the Rangers. However, knowing that Carey Price is just itching to get back between the pipes, he will be at his best tonight looking to come out with the victory for the Canadiens.
Secondly, Jacques Martin needs to find a way to get the ''Little 3'' first line of Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez on the ice and not be shadowed by the Jordan Staal line. If Martin can get them on the ice against the Penguins 4th line, he will have done his job, but the odds are they're going to be trading chances with either the Crosby line or the Malkin line, and that's dangerous territory if the Canadiens don't fulfill the third requirement for tonight.
Thirdly, the Canadiens need to play SOLID DEFENSE. Hal Gill can't let his former teammates take advantage of his weeknesses. Josh Gorges needs to be more perfect than he normally is, Paul Mara needs to keep his emotions in check and project Bergeron. Spacek and Hamrlik need to play like they did monday against the Isles. All this is easier said than done, but this is what is needed to go over the Stanley Cup champs.
The only thing that might hurt the team in their efforts?
The Canadiens 1st line center and arguably one of their best players in the early season, Scott Gomez, looks to have caught the flu from Glem Metropolit. Metro was good enough to go on Monday despite my speculation that he'd sit out the game in my last game preview, however Gomez is still listed as a game time decision by Habs Inside/Out. Let's hope this isn't the start of something that will ravage the team throughout most of the season, like it did a couple of years ago, knock on wood...
If Gomez is healthy, expect the same line-up we saw against the Isles, at least to start the game. If not, these were the lines at practice:
Plekanec would finally get two solid wingers, Metropolit would get some extra minutes so we can see what he can do when some of the spotlight is on his, and, well, the bottom two lines would just be kind of thrown together.
No panic from my perspective yet, but the Canadiens need to be cautious both with this flu, and with this game, the first true test of the season.
I was planning a feature on Swine Flu in the NHL and sports in general, but that will show up here either tomorrow or in my Blackhawks game preview on Friday, so keep an eye out for that.
For now, enjoy the game, and don't forget to follow me and the Checking Line on twitter, facebook, and all those crazy technology sites!
Also, please leave your feedback about the new site layout and features here!