Pittsburgh Penguins (20-10-1-41) vs. Montreal Canadiens (15-14-2-32)
Where: Bell Centre When: Thursday, December 10, 7:30 p.m. Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9 TV: FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428, DirecTV 659 and Verizon Fios 576. *View FSN's Broadcast Schedule here() Season Series: The season series heads to Montreal with the Penguins winning both contests at Mellon Arena, 6-1 on Oct. 28 and 3-1 on Nov. 25. Pittsburgh has been led in the series by Sidney Crosby, who has five points (4G-1A), including his third career hat trick in the Oct. 28 meeting. Marc-Andre Fleury has won both starts in goal for Pittsburgh.
Puck Possession: A quick dissection of the Penguins’ 2-0 record against Montreal in ’09-10 would show the puck has spent more time on the sticks of the Penguins than it has the blades of the Canadiens. The Penguins have taken advantage of injuries to Montreal and will have a chance to do the same thing again on Thursday as the Canadiens will potentially be without three of their top-six blueliners in Andrei Markov, Jaroslav Spacek and Paul Mara.
Quick Start: Another reason the Penguins have been able to dominate the action against Montreal is because they have put both games out of reach before the Canadiens knew what hit them. Pittsburgh jumped out to a 4-0 lead on Oct. 28 and a 3-0 advantage on Nov. 25. An early goal on Thursday could put the outcomes of those games in the back of the Canadiens’ minds.
LOWDOWN ON THE CANADIENS
Expectations were through the roof for the Canadiens in ’08-09, one season after posting the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference. Production did not match the hype as the Canadiens finished the season in eighth place before being swept in the first round by archrival Boston. Among the most historic franchises in professional sports history, the Canadiens have won a league-record 24 Stanley Cup championships, but their fans are feeling restless as the 17 years since their last title is the longest draught in club history. The Canadiens have been very streaky through the first quarter of this season with a current three-game wining streak and an earlier run of four straight wins to go with a stretch of five-consecutive losses on their resume.
Former St. Louis Blues, Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers bench boss Jacques Martin steps in to replace general manager Bob Gainey, who coached the team on an interim basis at the end of last season. Martin brings 1,129 games, 543 coaching wins and three division championships into Thursday night’s game. However, in his three seasons behind the bench in Florida, the team failed to reach the playoffs in all three campaigns.
This summer could be dubbed “Extreme Makeover: Montreal Edition.” The Canadiens severed ties with five of their top nine leading scorers from 08-09, electing to not re-sign Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Mathieu Schnieder. Among the many new faces brought in to replace them are three former Stanley Cup champions in Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Hal Gill.
Gionta and Gomez had past success as linemates in New Jersey, particularly in 2005-06 when Gionta scored a career-high 48 goals and 89 points while Gomez registered 51 assists and 84 points. High-scoring Mike Cammalleri was signed to round out the Habs’ new top line. Cammalleri enjoyed a monster season with Calgary in ’08-09, scoring 39 times and assisting on 43 others playing mostly on a line with Jarome Iginla. Cammalleri has been one of the Canadiens’ most consistent players, leading the team in goals (17) and plus/minus (plus-11), while his 27 points rank second on the squad.
Former Penguin Gill proved throughout the 2009 playoffs how effective he can be against the game’s top offensive threats, teaming with Rob Scuderi to keep Eric Staal, Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa in check during the final two rounds. Gill has already earned the respect of his new teammates, being elected an alternate captain. Jaroslav Spacek, who spent the past three seasons in Buffalo, is equally effective supplying offense as he is playing tough defense in his own zone. He posted a career-high 45 points (8G-37A) for the Sabres in ’08-09.
Montreal traded Guillaume Latendresse to the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 23 in exchange for Benoit Pouliot, a 23-year-old life-long Canadiens fan. Pouliot never established himself with the Wild after being chosen fourth-overall in 2005, one spot ahead of his new teammate, Carey Price. He adds even more speed and skill to a Montreal lineup that already boasted plenty of each.
With injuries removing free agent additions Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta from the lineup for extended stretches, Montreal has afforded the Kostitsyn brothers – Andrei and Sergei – a second chance to earn top-six minutes. The older of the two, Andrei has flourished playing alongside Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec, registering points in four of his past five games (2G-3A). In 12 career games against the Penguins he has nine points (5G-4A), tied for his second-best total against any one team. Sergei Kostitsyn opened the season with Hamilton of the American Hockey League after a disappointing conclusion to last season. After producing 13 points (5G-8A) in 16 games he was summoned back to Montreal, where he has three assists in eight games.
Gomez never quite fit while in the Big Apple after signing with the Rangers three summers ago, but appears plenty comfortable reunited with Brian Gionta. He has recorded 15 points (4G-11A) in 27 games. Gionta saw his numbers drop four-consecutive seasons for the Devils, from a career-high 48 goals in ’05-06 to 20 tallies last year, the second-lowest full-season total of his career. With eight goals in his first 19 games, Gionta will still have a chance to surpass that total even though he is currently out indefinitely with a broken foot.
Montreal has gotten surprising offense from its third line of Travis Moen, Max Pocioretty and Glen Metropolit. One of the league’s grittiest players, Moen has six goals and leads the Canadiens with 68 hits. After scoring only 17 points in 76 games with the Canadiens and Flyers last season, Metropolit has 14 (6G-8A) through his first 25 games in ’09-10. Pocioretty has already equaled last season’s totals of three goals and eight assists in three less games.
Montreal was dealt a harsh blow when Andrei Markov was sidelined indefinitely when he severed a tendon on the skate of Carey Price in the opener. Only Mike Green of Washington finished with more points than the 64 (12G-52A) registered by Markov last year. To replace his offense the Canadiens signed power-play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron. Despite joining the Canadiens seven games into the season Bergeron is tied for the team lead among defensemen with 13 points (7G-6A), including four scores with the man-advantage (tied for second-most among all defensemen) and three game-winning goals, a figure which is tops amongst blueliners (tied).
Veteran Roman Hamrlik has started strong in the early going by serving as the Canadiens de facto leader with Markov out. He has a team-leading (tied) 13 points (4G-9A) from the blue line and leads Montreal in average ice time at 24:48 per game. Jaroslav Spacek has given Montreal his usual steady performance at both ends of the ice with 10 points (3G-7A) to match his plus-6 rating. The 35-year-old Spacek has 313 career points (76G-237A) and is a plus-31 through 730 career games.
Hal Gill and Paul Mara were added to provide muscle to the back end. Each has certainly provided that, as they rank 1-2 (Mara, 44; Gill, 35) in penalty minutes for Montreal. As Penguin fans know, Gill can be impossible to penetrate with his size and long stick while Mara owns above-average puck skills, particularly moving the puck ahead to the forwards from his own zone. He has seven assists through 30 games.
Carey Price saw his play drop off in ’08-09 after a strong rookie season which saw him win 24 games while leading the Canadiens to the top record in the conference and a seven-game opening-round defeat of the Boston Bruins. He finished last season with a record of 23-16-10 with a 2.83 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage.
Price had a tough start to this season, winning just two of his first six starts and posting a 3.36 goals-against average and an .886 save percentage heading into the first matchup with Pittsburgh. Since then he has turned both his and the Canadiens’ season around with a 7-6-2 record. He was named NHL “Second Star” for the week ending Nov. 22 when he went 2-0-1 and stopped 94 of the 100 pucks thrown his way.
Jaroslav Halak got the start against the Penguins on Oct. 28 and brought a four-game winning streak into that contest. After allowing four goals on 23 shots and getting pulled after two periods, he has ceded the starting gig back to Price. Halak helped Montreal steal two points on Tuesday night with 45 saves in a 4-1 defeat of the Ottawa Senators. He has a 6-4 record, 2.80 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: TOMAS PLEKANEC
Tomas Plekanec is off to the best start of his NHL career with team highs in assists (25) and points (31) through the first 31 games of the season. A 20-plus goal scorer each of the past three campaigns, the 27-year-old’s goal totals are not on par with what he usually provides the Canadiens but his assist totals are way up as he has become a much better playmaker playing alongside Mike Cammalleri.
Plekanec has been especially strong during the Canadiens current three-game winning streak as he has six assists during that span. A consistent point producer on the international stage in the past, Plekanec should have a leading role for the Czech Republic at the 2010 Olympic Games.
Just as it has all season long the Canadiens’ injury report features a long list of top performers. - Forward Brian Gionta has been on the shelf since Nov. 14 with a broken bone in his foot. He is listed as out indefinitely. - All-star defenseman Andrei Markov damaged several tendons in his leg during the Canadiens season opener and will be out until at least February. - Defenseman Paul Mara left Monday night’s 3-1 victory over Philadelphia with an upper-body injury and did not play on Tuesday night in Ottawa. - The Montreal defense was dealt a further blow when Jaroslav Spacek left the game against the Senators after catching a shot on the inside of his right knee. - Forward Benoit Pouliot, acquired from Minnesota on Nov. 23, has yet to suit up for the Canadiens due to a wrist injury.
"THEY SAID IT"
"He was the reason we won the game tonight, for sure. He was solid from the start. We needed him right away."
- Mike Cammalleri talking to the Canadiens official website about the 45-save effort from Jaroslav Halak in Montreal’s 4-1 win over Ottawa on Tuesday.
POINT OF INTEREST
10-1: Montreal’s record in 2009-10 when they get the first goal.