1. SINGING THE BLEUS
Just one month ago, Montreal was sitting atop the Atlantic Division with a five-point cushion over second-place Detroit. The Canadiens promptly lost their next six games, starting their slide down the standings. Montreal now sits in third place, eight points behind the surging first-place Panthers, who have points in 13 straight games, and two points behind the steady Red Wings. The Canadiens, who haven’t played since suffering a 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday, have just three wins in their last 10 games. While Montreal has dropped in the standings, Chicago has risen. With an eight-game win streak still intact, the Blackhawks are now just two points behind first-place Dallas in the Central Division; they’ve also opened up a slight gap with a three-point lead on St. Louis while retaining a game in hand.
2. NET LOSS
Montreal has been playing without Carey Price—last year’s Hart and Vezina trophy-winning goaltender—since he suffered a lower-body injury on Nov. 25. Prior to his injury, Price was yet again playing at an award-winning level, posting a 10-2-0 record with a .934 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average before getting hurt; he skated for the first time on Tuesday, but isn’t expected to return until after the All-Star break. Mike Condon has been the Canadiens’ primary goaltender in Price’s absence, and the 25-year-old product of Princeton has been a steady presence in his first NHL season, going 12-10-3 with a .910 SV% and 2.35 GAA. He’s won three of his last four starts after going winless in seven straight starts, and he’ll need to be at his best to stymie the Blackhawks’ balanced offense, which has averaged four goals a game over their current win streak.
3. MAX POWER
The Habs are led offensively by their captain and top-line left wing, Max Pacioretty. His 17 goals are a team high and share 15th in the league. When Pacioretty has the puck, there’s a good chance it’s in the offensive zone, and an even better chance he’ll get a decent look on net; only three players in the league have taken more shots than Pacioretty’s 166. The first-round pick in 2007 has proven to be one of the league’s elite goal-scorers over the past few years; his 37 tallies last season tied him for fifth in the league. The season prior, he picked up 39 goals, trailing only noted snipers Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski. Pacioretty and linemates Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec kickstarted 2016 with a big showing at the Winter Classic in Boston after getting Gallagher back from a hand injury, and they’ll need to continue carrying the Canadiens offensively if Montreal is to make a comeback in the Atlantic Division standings.
4. RIGHT ON Q
On the same day that his three-year contract extension was announced, Joel Quenneville notched the 782nd regular-season win of his 19-year head-coaching career. If the Blackhawks defeat Montreal, Coach Q will pass legendary Islanders coach and four-time Stanley Cup winner Al Arbour and move into sole possession of second place in wins, trailing only Scotty Bowman (1,244). In eight seasons with the Blackhawks, Quenneville has posted a 344-168-69 with a .651 points percentage, the best in franchise history.
“It’s been a special place here in Chicago for us,” Quenneville said after Tuesday’s victory over Nashville. “It’s been eight great years. It’s been a great run.”
5. TOP GUNS
The Blackhawks’ top line of Andrew Shaw, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa has found another gear after a few games together, and each player has picked up four points over the last two games. Toews tallied a goal and three assists over that span and now has 11 points over the past nine games. Hossa broke out of a personal slump with two goals and two assists, ending a five-game pointless streak and 14-game stint without a goal. His helpers came in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Nashville when he set up both goals from Shaw, as the feisty winger crashed the net and put loose pucks past Pekka Rinne. The rejuvenated top line has taken some pressure off Chicago’s second line, which has carried the offensive load over the first half of the season.
“We know how good they are,” Brent Seabrook said Tuesday. “They were going to get going eventually. When you’ve got two world-class lines going it’s pretty nice to see.”
THE FINAL WORD
For the second straight game, the Blackhawks will try to extend their season-long win streak against a solid possession team going through a rough patch for various reasons. They’ll also be without Artem Anisimov for a second time, as the second-line center did not travel to Montreal because of a nagging illness that came on shortly before Tuesday’s game. As a result, Teuvo Teravainen took his spot alongside Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, Richard Panik suited up in his first game as a Blackhawk, and the team didn’t miss a beat. The Blackhawks are firing on all cylinders, while the Canadiens went from a franchise record 9-0-0 start to just three wins in all of December. Heading into Bell Centre, a hostile environment for road teams, the Blackhawks may look to Montreal native Corey Crawford to shut down the home team. Crawford has won six consecutive games and is 3-0-2 all-time against a Canadiens team now fighting for playoff positioning.