The Montreal Canadiens make their second visit to Nationwide Arena this season on Thursday night, their second meeting with the Blue Jackets in five days. The two teams met in Montreal on Saturday, a 3-1 Jackets’ loss thanks largely to the performances of Max Pacioretty and Carey Price.
The Canadiens are the top team in the Eastern Conference, their 83 points one ahead of the New York Islanders. They’ve won two straight, their win over the Jackets and then a 5-2 win in St. Louis. It was only the fourth time all season the Blues had given up more than four goals in a game. In addition to their mini streak, the Canadiens have won seven of their last 10 and they have earned points in 14 of their past 17.
When talking about Montreal, the conversation revolves around their scoring depth and youth. Pacioretty is their leading scorer at age 26 and is set to record his third 30-goal season. Defenseman P.K. Subban, 25, is on pace for his second consecutive 50-point campaign. Brandon Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk were a dual Calder Trophy threat during their rookie seasons and both are growing more dangerous now in their third seasons. Gallagher has four goals in his last three games (17-18-35 this season), while Galchenyuk has three goals in his past five outings (18-21-39 this season).
Another young face now enters the fold. The Canadiens traded All-Star rookie Jiri Sekac to the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday for bottom-six forward Devante Smith-Pelley. The newcomer will make his Canadiens debut in Columbus after playing parts of four seasons in Anaheim. He has five goals and 17 points in 54 games this season.
As much as Montreal depends on youth contributions, any successful team will have some veteran presence to rely on. The Canadiens are no exception, with Tomas Plekanec scoring 18 goals thus far in his 10th full season in Montreal and offensive defenseman Andrei Markov with 36 points in his 14th season, all for the Canadiens.
Saturday’s 3-1 loss in Montreal was a tightly-contested affair, one in which the Jackets fell behind early before barraging a stout Price the rest of the way. Pacioretty scored twice in the first period, both goals coming on one-timers from the same spot at the top of the right circle to push Montreal to an early two-goal lead. The Jackets cut into the lead a minute after Pacioretty's second tally, when Artem Anisimov carried the puck from the neutral zone through the defense and drove to the net. Price made the initial stop on the Anisimov shot before Nick Foligno finished off the rebound for the goal.
The Jackets out-shot the Canadiens 21-11 over the final two periods, but were unable to get another puck past Price. Price made the routine saves, and made the difficult stops look routine. His best sequence came in the second period when a Cam Atkinson shot fluttered behind him. Price reached back with the paddle of his stick to smack the puck away from the goal line and preserve Montreal’s one-goal lead. Plekanec’s empty-netter in the final minute put the game away.
Max Pacioretty isn’t only one of the league’s best players. He’s also been a Blue Jackets killer in the teams’ first two meetings. His two goals in the first period on Saturday came with a touch of déjà vu for Blue Jackets fans. Pacioretty had pulled a similar act in the first meeting, only that time it was two markers within a four-minute span in the third period that completely changed the game. Those goals, sandwiched around a Subban tally, erased a two-goal Jackets’ lead and solidified a road win for Montreal. Pacioretty has four goals in his last five games and 12 points in his last 11 games. The Canadiens’ power play is 25th in the league, but the Jackets know only too well how dangerous it can be with Pacioretty and Subban on the ice.
If there’s any goaltender in the league that can challenge Nashville’s Pekka Rinne for the Vezina Trophy this season, Carey Price is that man. Price has lost in regulation only once since Jan. 10 (think about that for a minute). He is 12-1-2 in his past 15 starts. During that stretch he has three shutouts and has given up more than two goals in a game only once for a save percentage of .946 over 15 starts. On the season, Price ranks second among all NHL goaltenders in wins, and first in both goals-against average and save percentage. And as the Blue Jackets know from Saturday night at the Bell Centre, he is more than capable of keeping his team in the game on those nights that the Canadiens struggle to put the puck in the net.
The Blue Jackets have spoken all season about the importance of getting out to a good start, so it’s not a novel concept. However, in two games over the weekend against the Canadiens and Rangers, the Jackets played teams that particularly pride themselves on a quick transition offense, a 200-foot north-south skating game that opens the neutral zone and waters down the Jackets preference for a physical style. In both of those games, the Jackets struggled with the pace in the first period and fell behind before tightening up their play at both blue lines, slowing down the game, and carrying the play for much of the final 40 minutes. In both of those games it was also too little, too late. The Blue Jackets are 3-17-2 this season when trailing after the first period, and they can’t afford to save their better hockey for the final two periods again.