Spirits are not very high and the frustrations are mounting among the players of Club de Hockey Canadien, but one thing that might help snap them back to attention is a game against the Bruins. That’s just who the Habs visit on Thursday night.
Certainly the Bruins feel that way. It’s the mark of a good team that they take no opponent lightly, even one that is struggling. B’s coach Claude Julien put his Stanley Cup champions through a short, crisp practice on Wednesday and then told reporters the Canadiens still represent a major challenge for his team.
“It doesn’t matter what their situation is, they always play well against us,” said Julien. “They know they can, and they come in with lots of confidence and then they give us tough games. Every time we’ve beat them, we’ve had to play really good hockey, and that’s what we have to be prepared to do tomorrow.
“The one thing they seem to do is give us good games all the time,” the former Habs coach added. “Just like certain teams match up better than others, and I think they feel confident when they play against us. They play a style that gives us some issues, and we have to really battle hard to beat those guys.”
The teams have split their first four encounters this season, with the Habs taking those back-to-back games at the end of October and Boston winning the next two. Three of the four games have been decided by a goal. A big reason these teams play close, exciting game is they are two of the faster teams in the league. However, the B’s have much more than speed.
Although Boston trails the Rangers by three points for the Eastern Conference lead, they are still in a very good groove. After dropping that pair to Montreal early on, they went on a 14-0-1 run, lost two straight, then won eight of nine before losing to the Canucks on Saturday.
They didn’t play particularly well for two periods against the Jets on Tuesday, but turned it on in the final period with three goals to defeat Winnipeg 5-3.
While the Habs third period woes are well-known, the B’s continue to flourish in the final 20 minutes of regulation, their 60 goals ranking only behind the Senators’ 62 — and Boston has played five fewer games than Ottawa.
Of course, Boston will be without one of the players that provides their identity — second line winger and first-class irritant Brad Marchand, who will sit the second game of a five game ban for his clipping infraction on the Canucks Sammy Salo.
Stepping into Marchand’s spot on the line with Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin is none other than Benoit Pouliot (pictured), who has five points in his last three games and nine in his last nine (including a goal vs. the Habs last month). Yes, that Benoit Pouliot.
He’s not the only hot stick in Boston. David Krejci has 10 points in his last five games. Milan Lucic has seven points in his last five games and nine in his last eight.
Nathan Horton, who has emerged from a dry spell, scored two big goals against the Jets, including one eight seconds into the third. He’s got five goals in the last four games and nine points in the last nine.
This is a team that has scored 70 more goals than it has allowed, by far the best differential in the NHL. Runners-up Vancouver and Detroit are plus-36; the Rangers plus-35 by comparison. Their 3.67 average goals for a game is best in the league.
No surprise, they also are strong defensively. They come into the game averaging only 1.92 goals against per contest, the only team in the league under 2.00.
And they wouldn’t be the Bruins without leading the league in penalty minutes, averaging 16.5 minutes a game. Shawn Thornton’s fight Tuesday gives them 33 majors on the season, one more than the Rangers.
Tuukka Rask played against the Jets on Tuesday, so Tim Thomas will almost certainly be in goal on Thursday. No need to supply stats to demonstrate how good he is.
Here’s the expected Boston lineup:
Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Nathan Horton
Benoit Pouliot, Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin
Chris Kelly, Zach Hamill, Rich Peverley
Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton
Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk
Dennis Seidenberg, Joe Corvo
Andrew Ference, Adam McQuaid