Habs / Sens Preview UPDATE: Halak in, No Cammy or Bergy

Just like last week and the week before, tonight is the beginning of the most important week of the season for the Montreal Canadiens. This time I mean it. Really.

After having their impressive six game win streak snapped by the Leafs, of all teams, the Canadiens will look to make it up tonight against the Ottawa Senators. They will then travel to Buffalo for a road game on Wednesday night against the Northeast Division leading Sabres. They return home the next night for a game against the Florida Panthers, a game that may or may not be the final nail in the coffin for the Panthers and their playoff hopes. Finally, they host the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night in what could be a preview of the Canadiens' first round playoff series.

With the Canadiens, Senators and Flyers in a three-way tie for 5th in the East, and all the games in hand played (and lost), tonight's game between the Habs and Sens is for all the marbles. But it's not as clear-cut as it seems. The Sens and Flyers face off tomorrow, which means that there could very well be another tie for fifth spot after tomorrow night's game. However, if the Habs allow the Sens to win tonight, and they go on to beat the Flyers tomorrow, the Sens will be in sole possession of 5th spot and four points ahead.

So while a playoff spot is all but locked up for the Habs, tonight's game is for positioning. You have to wonder though; as Habs fans, who would you rather see the Canadiens face?

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Before the preview for tonight's game, here's a look at four potential opponents for the Canadiens:

The Washington Capitals are above and beyond any other team in the east this season. In 1st place for nearly the entire year, and with the President's Trophy all but theirs, they are definitely cup favorites. But they are lacking experienced playoff goaltending and their defense isn't as great as it could be. While they could beat you in the goals-for category, they can also be beaten, and the Canadiens have had success against Ovechkin and his troupes this season.

Right below them are the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team the Canadiens would most likely want to stay away from. They have decimated the Canadiens in their match-ups this season, and are by far the deepest and most experienced playoff team the Canadiens could face. With superstars in every position, this would arguably be the toughest match-up for the Canadiens. But with the Bruins a little further behind in 8th place and the Canadiens potentially sitting third behind the Sens and Flyers in the battle for fifth, this may be their most likely opponent.

The Atlantic Division is anything but locked up for the Pens though, with the New Jersey Devils two points behind in 4th place and with a game in hand. History will tell you that the Canadiens would NOT want to face Marty Brodeur and his team, but it's been a long time since these two met in the playoffs, and that environment might be the right one to finally turn the tide against Marty and start proving people wrong.

Finally, if the Canadiens finish sixth, the odds are that they will face Northeast Division rivals the Buffalo Sabres. Last week, it looked like the Habs could catch up to the Sabres for the Northeast title, but with all but one of the Sabres games in hand now played, they've ran away with it, accumulating 88 points and a seemingly insurmountable 9 point lead on the Habs and Sens. Nevertheless, this may be the best match-up for the Canadiens. While Miller is one of the strongest goaltenders in the league, he has played a lot of games, both in the NHL and at the Olympics this year, and the rest of the team, while solid, is not exactly filled with superstars. Considering how competitive the Habs-Sabres games of the regular season usually are, the Habs may be able to sneak by the Sabres in a playoff series.

As things stand right now, two things are certain: The Canadiens won't face the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, for the first time in nearly a decade, it seems. Moreover, the Canadiens could face any one of the above mentioned teams, and could have a good chance of beating each one of them.

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Regardless of all this, the Canadiens still have 10 regular season games to play, and could still finish anywhere between 5th and 8th place when it's all said and done, not to mention the uncertainty between the 2nd and 4th place positions mentioned above as well.

Tonight, they welcome Alex Kovalev and the Ottawa Senators to the Bell Centre. The Sens have lost their last five games, giving up a whopping 22 goals in that stretch, while scoring only 9. They were 1 and 3 before that, since their return from the Olympic break, beating the Oilers two weeks ago, but losing to the Rangers, Hurricanes and Leafs the week before that. With a 1-6-2 record in March, the Sens have dropped a long way from where they were earlier in 2010, when they were steamrolling past the competition and on their way to, potentially, home ice advantage in the playoffs.

If that wasn't enough, after accumulating 10 points in the eight games between the last time the Canadiens and Sens faced off on January 30th, and the Olympic Break, Alex Kovalev has not registered a single point in 9 games in the month of March. While he could be feeling heartache over his country's failure at the Vancouver Olympics, and heartache over the fact that he wasn't picked to represent his nation, there is no excuse for a player with his salary and of his importance to go that long without a point. If that happened in Montreal, he would have already been for a walk down by the Old Port with Bob Gainey or who ever. Maybe the Rideau Canal isn't that nice to look at while the ice is melting?

In comparison, the player who replaced Kovalev, Brian Gionta, has been on a hot streak since Brian Burke decided to leave him off Team USA. After missing 21 games with a broken foot, Gionta has been on an incredible pace. In March alone, he has 8 points in 9 games, including 6 goals for a total of 23 goals in 51 games. If Gionta was as healthy and fiesty as he has been in recent games, 40 plus goals for the sniper would not have been a stretch. Along with Scott Gomez and Benoit Pouliot, Brian Gionta has been among the Canadiens best players and one of the big reasons for their recent success.

So while the Sens have basically gone through the toilet in the last month, the Canadiens have gone the exact opposite direction in March. Despite missing Mike Cammalleri and Marc-Andre Bergeron since before the Olympics, they've gone 7-1-1 this month, a stretch which included a six game winning streak which was snapped by the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 3-2 overtime loss on Saturday night. They've accumulated points in all but one game (against the Sharks, in which they still played extremely well), and have scored 32 goals without their top goalscorer.

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With both Cammalleri and Bergeron on their way back in, possibly tonight, you would imagine that things will only get better for the Canadiens, who will be nearly 100% healthy for one of the first times this season.

If Cammalleri and Bergeron are back in tonight, the only player missing will be Paul Mara, out for the season with shoulder surgery, who was a non-factor anyway. Tom Pyatt is almost certain to sit in that case, and one of either Mathieu Darche or Maxim Lapierre will be watching the game from the pressbox. Their returns will certainly provide a boost for Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, who haven't been all that great, as well as the beyond-struggling Canadiens powerplay.

But while reports of early returns from both these snipers are making their way around the net, nothing has been confirmed by the team and coach Jacques Martin. With the morning skate scheduled to take place in mere moments, we should have confirmation as to who's in and who's out soon.

In the meantime, enjoy this excellent article from Steven Hindle at Hockey Independent. Steven looks at how three Canadiens prospects could be rookies of the year in their respective leagues, detailing the progress of PK Subban, Louis Leblanc and Danny Kristo.

Back with more soon including line-up changes and the starting goaltender when the info is available,

Enjoy the Game!

Prax
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