The young Boston Bruins may be the NHL's hottest team, but before they truly establish themselves as contenders in the Eastern Conference, they're probably going to have to beat the Montreal Canadiens.
As the Bruins seek their fifth consecutive win, they'll also be looking to end a 12-game regular-season losing streak against their Original Six rivals as the teams meet in Boston on Thursday night.
Boston was a surprising entrant in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season, and coach Claude Julien's club has taken another step forward this fall.
Wednesday's 2-1 victory at Chicago - their first shootout win this season after three losses - was the Bruins' fourth straight win overall and seventh in their last eight games. They've surged into a tie with Buffalo atop the Northeast Division behind a balanced offense and red-hot goalie Tim Thomas.
Boston (9-3-3) has nine players with at least eight points, but Marco Sturm's power-play goal in the second period was the only offense the team could muster in 39 shots against Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin on Wednesday.
Still, P.J. Axelsson scored the shootout winner, and Thomas made 31 saves for his fifth win in his last six starts.
"I think the game was a reflection of the direction both organizations are heading in," said Julien, who coached the Canadiens from 2002-06. "There were a lot of shots and both goaltenders excelled at keeping the score low."
Thomas has done plenty of that lately - allowing just seven total goals in his last six games - and his 1.76 goals-against average leads the league.
But he hasn't had such success against Montreal, losing his last eight starts against them in the regular season to fall to 4-12-2 with a 3.22 GAA lifetime.
Not including postseason, the Bruins last beat their archrivals on March 3, 2007, when they earned a 3-1 home win over Montreal. The Canadiens have outscored Boston 50-22 over their 12-game winning streak, although recent evidence suggests the gap between the teams is closing.
The clubs needed seven games to decide their first-round playoff series last spring before Montreal prevailed, and the last two regular-season games between the teams have gone to shootouts, including a 4-3 Habs home win to open this season's series on Oct. 15.
Boston fell behind 3-0 in the first period of that game, but came back to force the shootout, as Marc Savard's second goal of the third period was the equalizer in the final minute.
"Obviously, the first period, that's not the start that we wanted," Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said. "We never stopped battling and we came back in the game, and I think that's a big point, but we could have avoided going to overtime by playing well in the first period."
The Habs (9-2-2) are perfectly happy with their start. After earning the East's top seed in the playoffs last season, they again have the conference's best winning percentage in the early going.
They had dropped back-to-back games for the first time in 2008-09 entering Tuesday's contest against Ottawa, but responded with an impressive 4-0 win over the Senators. Chris Higgins notched his first career hat trick while Montreal goalie Carey Price stopped 28 shots for his first shutout of the season.
Price had allowed six goals in his previous start - a 6-3 loss at Toronto - but he bounced back against Ottawa and will now seek his seventh straight regular-season win against Boston to start his career. Including the playoffs, the 21-year-old is 10-3-0 with a 2.17 GAA against the Bruins.
Boston's offense has been clicking at the TD Banknorth Garden lately, however, with the team scoring 18 goals during its four-game home winning streak.