Northeast-leading Canadiens face test from Sharks
By David Kalan
SHARKS (12-8-4) at CANADIENS (16-8-2)
CBC, RDS (HD), CSN-CA (HD)
San Jose 5-3-2; Montreal 6-3-1
This is the only meeting of the season for San Jose and Montreal. The Sharks won their only game against the Canadiens a season ago, edging the Habs 3-2 on March 4 at HP Pavilion.
While San Jose is a regular in the discussion of Cup contenders, Montreal's hot start has been something of a surprise. A win against the potent Sharks is a prime chance for the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge to prove it belongs in the East's upper echelon.
As they make the second stop on a five-game road swing, the Sharks are hoping to find some rejuvenation as the season wears on. San Jose started its trip on the right foot with a 4-0 win in Ottawa Thursday night, but the Sharks have still won just three of their last eight games, dropping them to fourth in the Pacific Division. Given the impressive logjam in the Western Conference, however, San Jose is just three points behind the first-place Stars, who have taken advantage of the Sharks' slump with a five-game winning streak.
San Jose's offense has been there. Patrick Marleau has 4 points in his last five games to go with his 22 points on the season, while Dany Heatley has been hot throughout the recent rough stretch, tallying 11 points in the last nine games. The bigger concern seems to be between the pipes where Antti Niemi may be showing the form he had during this spring's Stanley Cup run with Chicago. Niemi picked up his first shutout of the season against Ottawa two starts after an impressive 30-save win against his old friends, the Blackhawks. But those wins sandwiched a rough performance against Vancouver, in which he surrendered six goals. Antero Niittymaki has carried the bulk of the load this season, and appears likely to start Saturday, but after surrendering five goals to Detroit in his last outing his hold on the spot seems far more tenuous.
At the start of the season, Boston appeared the clear favorite in the Northeast, but the Bruins have found themselves in a fierce battle for the top of the division with the Canadiens. Montreal jumped into first place by a four-point margin, but given Boston's two games in hand, the Canadiens will need to gain more consistency to hold on. In fact, the Habs have been about as consistently inconsistent as a team can be lately, alternating wins and losses for the last three weeks -- a span of nine games.
If that trend continues, the Canadiens could be in for a rough day Saturday after trouncing the Devils 5-1 in their last outing Thursday night. If Montreal goaltender Carey Price has any say the Habs will snap that streak Saturday with another victory, and given his impressive track record this season, who can argue? Price leads the League with 15 wins while compiling an impressive .934 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average. His play so far indicates that Montreal general manager Pierre Gauthier knew what he was doing when he dealt Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis in the offseason.
San Jose is getting impressive production from its younger players. Both center Benn Ferriero and defenseman Justin Braun have only played four games this year -- in the case of Braun, four games in his NHL career -- but the two have combined for 7 points in the last three games. … Nearly everyone has pitched in for the Habs, including center Lars Eller, who has 3 points in his last two games, including the game-winner Thursday in New Jersey.
The Canadiens are still dealing with the sizeable loss of defenseman Andrei Markov, who is out indefinitely with a right knee injury. … San Jose could be without Devin Setoguchi (upper-body injury), Niclas Wallin (leg) and Kent Huskins (upper-body injury), all of whom missed Thursday's win in Ottawa.
San Jose has been one of the best teams in the League for nearly a decade, but the Bell Centre is never an easy place to play and the Sharks know it all too well. The Sharks haven't won in Montreal since taking down the Habs 3-1 on Dec. 17, 2002, nearly eight years ago.
San Jose and Montreal don't see each other often, which will make it interesting to watch each team learn about the other as the game progresses. Given San Jose's typical place in the League's hierarchy, however, the Canadiens will be in for a massive test Saturday, one that may help the Habs learn even more about themselves.