MONTREAL -- It has taken two months, but the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins will finally resume their storied rivalry at Bell Centre on Thursday, and it again will be a game when first place in their division will be on the line.
The Canadiens have gone 7-0-1 in their past eight games to close within a point of the Atlantic Division-leading Bruins, with Boston holding two games in hand. A win in regulation time would give the Canadiens the division lead for the first time this season, though it would be tenuous because of the two extra games Montreal has played.
The game Thursday marks the fifth straight between the Canadiens and Bruins when first place in the division was at stake, with each of their four games last season being a meeting at the summit of what was then the Northeast Division.
"It always seems like it comes down to being a big game," Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. "They've been really good of late, 7-0-1 in their last eight games and now a point behind us. So it always seems to be one of those big games, and it's no different tonight. It's probably our biggest test of the year coming into a real tough building against a real good team playing its best hockey so far this year."
The Canadiens had the better of those four showdowns for first place last season, winning the final three on March 3 (4-3), March 27 (6-5 in a shootout) and April 6 (2-1). That final victory extended Montreal's lead on the Bruins in the Northeast to three points, paving the way for the Canadiens to win the division.
In light of the intense nature of the games between these two teams, it seems like it has taken an eternity for the Canadiens and Bruins to face each other this season. Those involved feel it just as much as the fans do.
"It does feel different," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "This is probably a game everybody's been waiting for, fans and players alike. This is a great rivalry and we enjoy this. These are easy games to get up for on both sides and they wind up being pretty entertaining games."
The two teams enter the game Thursday from opposite ends of the fatigue spectrum, with the Bruins' previous game coming Saturday and the Canadiens playing their third game in four nights.
Montreal didn't hold a morning skate after a wild 4-3 shootout win on the road against the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday, so the Canadiens lineup remains a bit of a guessing game.
Carey Price will play in goal after backup Peter Budaj got the nod in New Jersey. In all likelihood, forward George Parros and defenseman Douglas Murray will draw into the lineup while forward Ryan White and defenseman Francis Bouillon should sit out.
The Bruins will counter with Tuukka Rask in goal, making this a matchup of not only the top two teams in the Atlantic Division, but also arguably the top two goaltenders in the NHL. Price enters the game third in the NHL in save percentage at .937, with Rask just behind him in fourth at .935.
Here is what the lineups could look like for the Bruins and Canadiens:
Milan Lucic – David Krejci – Jarome Iginla
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – Loui Eriksson
Carl Soderberg – Chris Kelly – Reilly Smith
Daniel Paille – Gregory Campbell – Shawn Thornton
Zdeno Chara – Johnny Boychuk
Dennis Seidenberg – Dougie Hamilton
Torey Krug – Kevan Miller
Scratched: Matt Bartkowski, Jordan Caron
Injured: Adam McQuaid (lower body)
Daniel Briere – Tomas Plekanec – Brian Gionta
Max Pacioretty – David Desharnais – Brendan Gallagher
Alex Galchenyuk – Lars Eller – Brandon Prust
Travis Moen – Michael Bournival – George Parros
Andrei Markov – P.K. Subban
Josh Gorges – Alexei Emelin
Douglas Murray – Raphael Diaz
Scratched: Francis Bouillon, Ryan White
Injured: Rene Bourque (upper body), Davis Drewiske (knee)