After winning the Northeast Division title last season, the Montreal Canadiens feel they've yet to hit their stride in 2008-09. A four-game road trip would be a fine time to do just that.
Having just completed a month played nearly entirely at home, the Canadiens look to begin their trip on a positive note Saturday night when they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Montreal (18-9-6) trails surprising Boston by 12 points atop the Northeast. The deficit is partially due to the Bruins' excellent performance, but the Canadiens also haven't played quite to expectations. The reigning division champions have played 10 of 11 games at home since Nov. 29, but failed to take full advantage and only won six of those contests.
They ended the run of home games on a sour note Sunday, losing 3-2 to Carolina on Tuomo Ruutu's goal 1:43 into overtime.
"We knew this game would be tough. We knew we'd be challenged," Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek said. "It took us a while to find our stride but we feel good about our team heading into the Christmas break. We haven't played our best hockey yet."
Their best hockey may now be necessary. The Canadiens play 11 of 15 games between now and Jan. 29 on the road, including a visit to Boston on Jan. 13. Montreal is 7-5-2 away from home this season, but all five of those regulation losses have come in its last eight road games.
The road team won all four meetings between these teams last season. The Canadiens have fared well at Pittsburgh for several years, going 10-3-2 there since the start of this decade.
The Penguins (19-12-4) will try once again for their first consecutive victories since winning a season-high six in a row Nov. 1-15. They've followed a win with a loss seven times since the end of that run, and have alternated losses with wins over their last eight games.
They won Friday night in New Jersey, where Marc-Andre Fleury made 37 saves to make Ruslan Fedotenko's goal stand up in a 1-0 victory - the first shutout for the Penguins this season.
It was the 12th career shutout for Fleury, who has started the last five games after missing 12 with an undisclosed injury. He's yielded two total goals in his last two starts after giving up 11 in the first three games of his return.
"I'm feeling better, timing wise," Fleury said. "It's the foot movement. I'm in the right place at the right time now."
Fleury has struggled in his career against Montreal, compiling a 4-3-1 record but posting a lofty 4.28 goals-against average and .875 save percentage. He's given up at least three goals in all nine of his starts versus the Canadiens.
Montreal goalie Carey Price was in net for both of his club's wins at Pittsburgh last season, allowing five goals on 51 shots to win his only two career starts against the Penguins.