BROSSARD – After toppling one of the league’s stingiest defensive squads on Tuesday night and finding their goal-scoring mojo in the process, another test awaits Michel Therrien’s troops in the form of their second back-to-back scenario in as many weeks.
Following a tilt against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals on Friday night in Washington, the Canadiens will do battle with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins 24 hours later at the Bell Centre. That’s a tall order for any team. For the Habs, however, who are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games and have struggled as of late to light the lamp, going up against two Eastern conference powerhouses at this point in the year provides a perfect opportunity to test their mettle and ultimately prove that they’ve returned to form after a tough stretch of games.
“We know those two teams well. They’re two good clubs. It won’t be easy. The Capitals struggled on Wednesday night [in a 4-0 loss to Pittsburgh], but they’re still one of the NHL’s power teams. It will be a big challenge for us, but we like challenges. We’re going to take things one game at a time,” offered Therrien, who has elected to start Peter Budaj against the Caps at the Verizon Center. “When the Capitals have a player like Ovechkin, especially with the way he’s been playing since the beginning of the season, he’s capable of changing a game in one or two shifts.”
The Canadiens, however, don’t intend on letting Ovechkin – or any other Capitals or Penguins player, for that matter – offer up a performance like that come Friday or Saturday night. The Habs bench boss believes that the win over Minnesota earlier in the week has set the club on the right path offensively, but that doesn’t mean that any of his players will be neglecting their defensive duties against the likes of ‘The Great Eight’ or ‘Sid The Kid’.
“A win like the one we had on Tuesday builds a team’s confidence level, especially for a team like us that was looking to score more goals. There are a lot of teams in the league looking to up their scoring. It doesn’t mean that teams aren’t working hard [when they struggle on offense]. It means that teams are playing it tight, and that we capitalized on our scoring chances,” offered Therrien, whose squad will be deprived of Rene Bourque’s services once again come Friday night as the Lac La Biche, AB native remains sidelined with a lower-body injury.
“One thing is certain, like I told the players, it’s not because we had difficulty scoring that we’re going to start cheating,” added Therrien. “That’s the worst thing we can do. We need to keep playing the right way. If we do that, we’re going to create intensity and scoring chances will follow. Eventually, good things will happen.”
Brendan Gallagher, who leads the Canadiens with eight goals and sits tied for third alongside Michael Bournival with a plus-5 rating, heeded his head coach’s call following Thursday’s practice at the Bell Sports Complex, citing the importance of staying in check and adhering to team systems regardless of the opposition.
“If you’re on the ice against those guys [like Ovechkin and Crosby], you’re going to play hard. You respect them, and obviously they’ve earned that respect. You can’t over respect opponents though. You’ve still got to play the same way that you do against anyone else. For that matter, focus on yourself and what you need to do to help your team,” mentioned Gallagher, who has racked up 14 points on the year after collecting two assists against Minnesota playing alongside David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty.
“Regardless of who we’re playing, we’re just trying to play our best 60 minutes every time we’re on the ice,” continued Gallagher. “That’s what we need to focus on, putting forward consistent efforts and getting back to that. That’s what we did really well last year. We know that we have the same group in here and that we’re capable of doing it.”
Lars Eller – Gallagher’s centerman for the better part of the year – shared similar thoughts on Thursday afternoon, noting that the Canadiens have plenty of good things to build off of going forward, despite the fact that they might have come out on the wrong side of the score sheet more often than they would have liked in recent weeks.
“I think everybody had fun playing the last game [against Minnesota]. There was chemistry, guys were competing. It was a good team effort all around,” offered Eller. “If you look at the actual games and break down the scoring chances, the goals were there. I’d be worried if we weren’t getting scoring chances, but we have been all season. For some reason, we haven’t been able to make that last play, but last game was very good to get that finish back.”
That ability to finish plays will be of primordial importance against Washington and Pittsburgh alike, with both clubs ranking in the top-10 in goals-for on the year.
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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