Some of the hockey experts will tell you that the Montreal Canadiens are only in their first-place spot in the Eastern Conference because of goaltender Carey Price. While there's something to said for Price's MVP-caliber performance so far this season, the Canadiens are a well-structured, attacking team that likes to force opponents to play at their pace.
The Canadiens always play well at the Bell Centre, and that trend has not waned in 2014-15. Montreal is 20-7-4 on home ice this season and has points in seven of its last 10 games entering Saturday night's game against the Blue Jackets. If there was a lull in the Canadiens' game at home, it's only been recently; they've lost two of their last three at the Bell Centre including a 3-2 shootout loss to the surging Florida Panthers on Thursday night, and also dropped an overtime decision to the Edmonton Oilers last week. They'll be ready to go Saturday night in a big game against Columbus as they look to keep their spot on top of the conference.
Price has won five of his past six starts - the lone defeat coming Thursday in the shootout, but he was excellent regardless - and the Canadiens are getting offense from the players they need to get it from.
They have the defensive responsibility you would expect from a team coached by Michel Therrien, but they also have a mobile and dynamic back end led by their top defense pairing of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov. Up front, they're young (led by the likes of Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and recent call-up Jacob De La Rose) and talented, and their veteran supporting cast is strong.
Tomas Plekanec is playing some of his best hockey of the season, and Max Pacioretty is having one of his better seasons with 27 goals -- and he's still only 26 years old.
The Blue Jackets and Canadiens last met on Jan. 14 at Nationwide Arena, and it was not a memorable finish for the home team. Columbus was under control -- or so it seemed -- for most of the game, holding a 2-0 lead in the third period before the bottom fell out. Ryan Johansen scored a power play goal with 10:22 to play, giving the Jackets a two-goal lead, before Montreal scored three quick goals in a span of 3:53 to completely turn the game around. Pacioretty scored twice in the third period for the Canadiens, including the go-ahead goal on a goal mouth deflection with 4:27 remaining.
A lower body injury has hampered Nick Foligno of late, causing him to miss practices and Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers. He took the morning skate in Pittsburgh Thursday and played in the Blue Jackets' 2-1 victory over the Penguins, albeit in a new spot on a line with Artem Anisimov and rookie Marko Dano -- a trio that played well in a grind-it-out, tight-checking game against one of their biggest rivals. Foligno has spent most of the season playing alongside Johansen and Scott Hartnell (and saw a couple shifts with them on Thursday) but it remains to be seen whether this change is a short or long-term one; Foligno does have a history playing with Anisimov in parts of the last two seasons.
Tomas Plekanec was one of the architects of the Canadiens' third-period comeback in their last meeting with the Blue Jackets. He played a solid all-around game as Canadiens fans have come to expect, but in that particular game, he set up Pacioretty for the game-winner late in regulation. Plekanec has been contributing offensively of late, as well, accumulating four goals and seven points in his last eight games including a multi-point effort in the Canadiens' 2-0 win over Detroit earlier in the week. Lately, he's been centering a line with two of the Canadiens' high-skilled youngsters in Galchenyuk and Gallagher.
“Check, Check, Check”
The Blue Jackets' bad habit of getting caught flat-footed out of the gates has subsided in recent weeks, but they need to have an especially-heightened awareness when they face the Canadiens. In their barn and in a big game, you can bet the Canadiens will come flying out of the gates and try to get the Blue Jackets on their heels with speed through the neutral zone and an active defense in the offensive zone. Much like they did Thursday in Pittsburgh, the Blue Jackets need to be on their tight-checking game, separating bodies from pucks and making 1-2 sharp, quick passes to get out of their zone and move up the ice together. Once they get into the offensive zone, let the forecheck go to work and force Montreal to play a 200-foot skating game to generate offense. In other words, don't let them play a half-ice game.