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Pittsburgh vs. Montreal Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins (35-21-1-71) at Montreal Canadiens (27-25-6-60)
Where: Bell Centre

Saturday, February 6, 2 p.m.
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
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.

Season Series: The Penguins will be looking to complete their first-ever season sweep of the Canadiens. They have twice previously posted unbeaten records against Montreal (1992-93, 2-0-1; 1998-99, 3-0-1). Pittsburgh notched 6-1 and 3-1 victories at Mellon Arena, and overcame a 2-1 deficit at the Bell Centre on Dec. 10 to register a 3-2 victory on Pascal Dupuis’ game-winning goal. Sidney Crosby (4G-1A) and Bill Guerin (1G-4A) have led the way against Montreal with five points in three games. Crosby recorded his third career hat trick against the Canadian on Oct. 28. Marc-Andre Fleury has picked up all three wins in goal for Pittsburgh.
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 streaky Canadiens currently reside in the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, although they are also three points away from missing the postseason altogether.

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 1,156 games, 544 coaching wins and three division championships into Saturday afternoon’s game.
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 (26) and plus/minus (plus-10). Unfortunately for Montreal, Cammalleri will miss the next six weeks with a knee injury.

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.
Montreal’s offense this season has pretty much been Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri and a host of mediocrity. That is not good news for a Canadiens squad which must spend the next six weeks without Cammalleri. Factor in the continued absence of Andrei Kostitsyn, who had combined with the two on a dominant first line, and you see Montreal is in need of some secondary scorers stepping up.

Two places the Canadiens will look as they hope to supplement Plekanec, who leads the team with 55 points (14G-41A) and is on pace to smash his career-high total of 69 points (29G-40A) established in 2007-08, is that of Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Prior to Gionta missing 21 games with a broken foot the two former New Jersey Devils had been showing signs of recapturing their past chemistry. Together the two are a perfect complement as Gomez serves as the playmaker to the five-time 20-goal scorer, Gionta. Gomez currently ranks third on the team with 37 points (7G-30A) in 54 games while Gionta ranks second behind only Cammalleri with 14 goals. 

Another player who will be asked to raise his game is 22-year-old Sergei Kostitsyn, younger brother of Andrei. Sergei has been elevated to Cammalleri’s spot on the left side of Plekanec and red-hot Benoit Pouliot (See Player Spotlight below). In his first game flanking them Kostitsyn factored in on both Montreal goals (1G-1A) during a 2-1 win over Vancouver on Tuesday and then added an assist on Thursday. In 25 games with the Canadiens after being recalled from Hamilton of the American Hockey League, Kostitsyn has produced seven points (2G-5A).

Montreal has gotten surprising offense from grinders Travis Moen and Glen Metropolit. One of the league’s grittiest players, Moen, a former Stanley Cup champion with Anaheim, has seven goals and leads the Canadiens with 126 hits. After scoring only 17 points in 76 games with the Canadiens and Flyers last season, Metropolit has already surpassed that figure with 22 points (11G-11A) in 52 games this season.
Pittsburgh has scored 12 times in three matchups thus far with the Canadiens, but they might find goals harder to come by in this contest because for the first time in 2009-10 they will see Montreal’s No. 1 defenseman, Andrei Markov. The 31-year-old Russian, who is considered a good bet to partner up with Sergei Gonchar at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, missed 35 games following a severe tendon injury he suffered in the season opener when he was cut by the skate of teammate Carey Price. Not only is Markov the Canadiens’ top offensive blueliner with four-straight 45-plus point campaigns on his resume, but he is also their top defensive defender. Markov leads the Canadiens in average ice time at 24:06 per game and has picked up 18 points (3G-15A) in 23 games.

Shortly following Markov’s injury the Canadiens signed power-play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron. He leads all Canandiens defenders in goals (10), assists (18) and points (28). Bergeron ranks second among all NHL defensemen with six power-play scores.

Veteran Roman Hamrlik really stepped up his play with Markov out. Hamrlik ranks second only to Markov in ice time at 23:36 per game, and he has also picked up 20 points (6G-14A) in 51 games. Jaroslav Spacek might not be picking up points at the same pace he did the past two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, but he has been steady at both ends. Spacek has 16 points (3G-13A), and his plus-8 rating is the second-highest figure on the team.

Hal Gill was signed away from the Penguins in the offseason to bring a physical, shutdown presence to the lineup. Gill has certainly fit the bill in that regard, as he leads the Canadiens with 53 penalty minutes. At 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, 25-year-old Ryan O’Byrne also adds a physical element to the Montreal back line. O’Byrne has spent the past several games paired up with Markov on the Canadiens’ top pairing.
There is no truth to the rumor that the CBS daytime soap As the World Turns derived its name from the Canadiens’ goaltending situation as Carey Price, the highly-regarded former No. 1 draft pick, and 24-year-old Jaroslav Halak have each taken multiple turns this season manning the crease.

Currently it is Halak who has handled the majority of the starts. The Slovakian native has gotten the call from head coach Jacques Martin in six of Montreal’s previous seven games, during which he has posted a 4-1-1 record. For the season Halak is 16-8-2 with a 2.40 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, which ranks third in the NHL. He is also 7-0 on the season when he makes 40 or more saves. Halak has started once this season against Pittsburgh, allowing four goals on 23 shots and getting pulled after two periods back on Oct. 28.

Carey Price, despite glimpses of brilliance in November when he was named NHL “Second Star” for the week ending Nov. 22, has struggled for the second-consecutive season. Although his save percentage is back up to .913 after falling to .905 last season, his won-loss record is sub-.500 at 11-17-4, while his goals-against average sits at 2.73. Since Dec. 1, Price has a record of 4-8-2, and over his past five starts he has yet to surrender less than three goals. However, he was sensational against the Penguins on Dec. 10 when he was named the game’s No. 2 star after stopping 38 of 41 shots. 
Benoit Pouliot struggled to find his offensive game during parts of four seasons with the Minnesota Wild, but since he was dealt to Montreal earlier this season in exchange for Guillaume Latendresse, he has proven why he was once so highly regarded. After picking up just 18 points (9G-9A) in 65 career games with the Wild, the former No. 4-overall selection in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft has scored 11 times and recorded 14 points in 20 games with the Canadiens.

Not only is Pouliot racking up the points with the Canadiens, but he has also given them consistent play with points in 11 of his 20 games. One reason for Pouliot’s improvement is his new-found willingness to go to high-traffic areas. Pouliot played with a feisty edge in junior but until recently had yet to display such an edge at the NHL level.
“O’Byrne deserves to be playing with Markov. He’s playing a strong physical game and he’s making good decisions with the puck.”

- Montreal head coach Jacques Martin speaking to the Montreal Gazette on his new top defensive pairing of Andre Markov and Ryan O’Byrne.

27.6: Montreal ranks second-to-last in the league with an average of 27.6 shots surrendered per game.
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Author: Jason Seidling

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