Game Preview #47 - Leafs vs Canadiens
he Toronto Maple Leafs (23-18-5) will face off tonight against the Montreal Canadiens (17-21-9) in a game that is important to the Leafs, but critical to the Habs. With a Leafs victory tonight, coupled with a Florida Panther loss in Winnipeg, the buds will vault back into the playoffs heading into the stretch run of the season. The Canadiens are currently sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings, nine points off the pace. In what has been an extremely trying and disappointing season for le bleu, blanc et rouge a loss tonight may be the final nail in the 2011-2012 season. Coming into the game tonight after blowing a third period lead in Pittsburgh the night before, the Canadiens hope Hockey Night in Canada versus their historic rivals will propel them to victory.
Too much of this season was put on the shoulders of PK Subban and Carey Price. Both of those players have regressed from their form of last season, and truthfully it was unrealistic to expect those players to once again be the be all and end all for the entire team. Erik Cole has actually been a revelation this season (at least to me). I thought he was a terrible free agent signing, and when he's being paid 4.5 million at 37 years of age it will be. At the moment though Cole is leading the Habs in scoring with 18 goals and 35 points in 47 games this season. He has brought size and scoring to a roster that was completely void of any grittiness. What is somewhat ironic is that with Cole, Max Pacioretty and the newly acquired Rene Bourque the Canadiens have addressed their smallish forward group, while the Leafs have adopted Montreal's strategy of speed and skill up front. At the back the Leafs will look to expose an area that has caused headaches in la Belle Provence all season. Subban has continued to develop into one of the league's future stars - while also developing into one of the dirtier players as well - however he is perhaps the only top four blueliner that is on the current roster. Josh Gorges is a decent defensive defenseman, but he lacks foot speed and his talent level does not match his character and determination. Look for the Leafs to attack with speed at will tonight. I'd love to see the Leafs blitz Price tonight, just to hear the ACC crowd jeer him.
Toronto is entering the game after a confusing victory over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night. Confusing in the sense that the Leafs dominated the game winning it quite handedly, but the Wild were a complete non factor on the night. It's difficult to judge the result considering the compete level of what may be the worst team in the league at the moment in Minnesota. With the Leafs expecting to ice the same lineup as Thursday night, it will once again be up to a balanced attack up front to lead the way. With leading scorers Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel still anchoring separate units it may pose matchup problems for a Habs team that lacks depth on the back end. the line of Kulemin - Grabovski - MacArthur have performed well in these rivalry games in the past, hopefully tonight's opponent acts as a catalyst for a second half resurgence. Grabovski has been producing of late, but the Leafs will need this line to start rolling soon. Jonas Gustavsson will once again start for the Leafs as he is an astounding 10-4-0 in his last 14 games and has a 3-1-1 career record versus the Canadiens with a 2.44 GAA and a .913 save percentage (stats courtesy of David Alter).
Heading into the season the Leafs and the Canadiens were expected to be battling neck and neck for a playoff spot. The first two games were intense and hard fought victories for the blue and white. With tonight's game being the first time they face off since Montreal captain Brian Gionta concussed James Reimer, a victory and seemingly death blow to the Habs' playoff hopes may be the best retribution the buds can provide the Canadiens.
Lupul - Connolly - Kadri
Kulemin - Grabovski - MacArthur
Lombardi - Bozak - Kessel
Crabb - Steckel - Brown
Phaneuf - Schenn
Gunnarsson - Komisarek
Gardiner - Franson
Moen - Eller - Kostitsyn
Pacioretty - Desharnais - Cole
Bourque - Plekanic - Blunden
Darche - Gomez - Weber
Gorges - Subban
Gill - Kaberle
Diaz - Emelin
Players to Watch
Leafs: Jake Gardiner - The Leafs rookie has been re-inserted into the lineup following a strange absence (still think the Leafs were showcasing Keith Aulie leading to Gardiner being a healthy scratch). With the injury to Liles limiting Toronto's puck moving options at the back-end, Gardiner has seen his power play time rise. Have a feeling he has a big night tonight against a struggling Canadiens team. Not a big prediction guy, but I think he scores his first NHL goal tonight. Gardiner's ability to skate the puck out of trouble in his own zone though is where his impact is felt the most.
Canadiens: PK Subban - The most important player on the Habs other than Price. The Leafs need to throw the puck in his corner and take the body as much as possible as PK will once again log heavy minutes. Subban has a tendency to let the physical play and personal matchups take him off of his game. Kadri and Subban are both similar antagonistic new generation players, could tonight be the night where this rivalry begins?
Game Time: 7:00 at the Air Canada Centre. TV - CBC. Radio - AM640.