MONTREAL – On tap in the second-to-last week of the campaign: A rare late-season visit from the West plus a pair of teams against whom the Canadiens would certainly like to have the last word.
Canadiens vs. Blackhawks – Tuesday, March 31 @ 7:30 PM
With games remaining well into the single digits, inter-conference matchups are about as rare as a Montreal winter without snow. But, such is the case on Tuesday as the Chicago Blackhawks come to town.
After closing out the 2007-08 campaign just three points shy of a playoff spot, the youthful ‘Hawks are poised for their first invitation to the spring dance since the 2001-02 season, when they finished fifth in the Western Conference with 96 points. Tied for fourth with Vancouver, the club owns the advantage of the higher seed by virtue of a game in hand and one less loss.
If Chicago hopes to hold onto their chance at home-ice advantage in the opening round of the postseason, it will need to snap its Bell Centre drought; the Blackhawks haven’t won in Montreal since a 3-2 triumph back on December 3, 2001.
If they hope to turn that around, they’ll need to stop winger Alex Tanguay, who has been on fire since returning to the lineup after missing a game with the flu. The 29-year-old rides a five-game point streak into Tuesday’s contest that’s seen him rack up 10 points, including four with the extra attacker. Tanguay also has enjoyed feasting on the Blackhawks over the course of his career, amassing 31 points in 27 games (1.15 points per game), his highest point-per-game average against any Western Conference opponent.
Chicago’s visit also marks the return of former Habs netminder Cristobal Huet. While he’s enjoyed respectable numbers in his debut campaign in the Windy City, whether he gets the start in the city he called home for the better part of three seasons remains to be seen. Nikolai Khabibulin has been handling the load of late, with Huet’s last start coming back on March 18.Canadiens @ Islanders – Thursday, April 2 @ 7 PM
The Islanders might be the leading candidates to call be the first to step up to the podium at the NHL Entry Draft in June, but as teams continue to make their respective pushes to the playoffs, facing the league’s cellar-dweller has been far from a walk in the park over the last month. The Canadiens aren’t the only ones to have witnessed it firsthand; after giving up 21 goals in a three-game losing streak, Scott Gordon’s crew skated into Joe Louis Arena on Friday and shocked the Red Wings 2-0.
While the two teams last faced off just three weeks ago, it’s been five months since the Habs last visited Nassau Coliseum. That night, the Canadiens turned a 4-1, third period deficit into a 5-4 regulation win. All three meetings this season have been tight affairs, all one-goal decisions with two decided in overtime and a shootout.
Montreal wouldn’t have any objection to the New York requiring extra time to decide their tilt against the Capitals on Wednesday. While the Canadiens fly into Long Island, the Isles will be down in Washington, looking to fulfill their spoiler role once again. The team is 6-6-3 in the second half of back-to-back matchups, with four of those wins coming in the first two months of the season.Canadiens @ Maple Leafs – Saturday, April 4 @ 7 PM
For the third time in one week, the Canadiens will face an opponent who will be suiting up for their second game in as many nights. This time, it will be the Maple Leafs who, after a date with the Flyers in Philly on Friday, will bring a 4-6-1 record in the second half of back-to-back sets to their meeting with the Habs.
While the Leafs were expected to fight it out in the John Tavares derby, the club has tallied just enough points this season to find themselves out of the race for the top pick come June. Heading into the week, head coach Ron Wilson had coaxed a 31-32-13 record out of his squad, giving them 75 points to sit 24th in the NHL, just a point back of Ottawa (22nd).
The Canadiens have shown more battle coming out of the gates over the last week and should that continue, the club can avenge their recent losses to the Maple Leafs fairly early. Toronto has spotted its opponents 85 goals in the opening frame - second-most in the NHL – and a league-worst 95 markers in middle stanza. The Habs rank in the top 10 in goals for in both periods.
Saturday’s tilt will be the final matchup up between the division rivals this year and the Canadiens will be looking to even out the season series, in which the Leafs own a 3-2 advantage.Heather Engel is a writer for canadiens.com
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