As the puck drops in Montréal tonight, we will be treated to one of the Original Six rivalries in one of the toughest barns for visitors to play in – the Bell Centre.
On the line tonight is more than simply two points. There are two teams fighting for their playoff lives: defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, clinging to 8th place in the West; and the Montréal Canadiens, looking to repeat last year’s surprise appearance in the playoffs, and hoping to hold onto 6th place. Chicago has 92 points in the hotly-contested WC with 3 more games after tonight. Montréal has 91 points with two more games after tonight and is even with the Rangers (91 points) and just one point ahead of Buffalo (90 points).
Both teams have strugged leading up to tonight. Since March 15, the Habs have gone 4-5-0, including being shut out in 3 consecutive games (vs Buffalo, Boston, and Washington). The one bright spot has their March 20th blowout of the Wild, 8-1. In that same stretch, Chicago has gone 4-4, also including getting shut out 3 times (Dallas, Boston, and Tampa Bay). Having Boston as a common nemesis is not something that will be commiserated over at center ice.
Prior to the game, Montréal goalie Corey Price will receive the Canadiens Molson Cup. This should be an emotional game for him; in the pre-season, the Habs fans booed Price, but at the end of the season, rewarded him for his exceptional play for the team.
For Chicago’s netminder, it will be no less emotional a game. Calder trophy candidate Corey Crawford is set to make his NHL debut in the Bell Centre tonight. Growing up in the suburbs of Montréal, it should be no surprise that Crawford was a Habs fan. He plays his first game here as the established number one goalie for the Blackhawks; he will have “about twenty” friends and family in the stands.
Brent Sopel, who played for the Blackhawks last year and won the Stanley Cup with them, also will be on the ice for the Habs, as the team he was first traded to, the Atlanta Thrashers, made him a late-season trade to the Canadiens. With tonight’s game, Sopel becomes the second (Ben Eager was the first) of last year’s Stanley Cup champs to play against their old team under a second team’s colors. Only Kris Versteeg, who was traded to Philadelphia after Chicago had played them but before they played Toronto, will not face his old team this season unless they meet again in the playoffs.
Even putting the personal stories and the playoff stress aside, this should be an exciting game. Chicago plays a speedy puck-possession game; Montréal will do its best to box them out and try to alleviate their own scoring drought. Both desperately need the two points, but both also hope to come away with at least one, especially as plenty of other games are being played tonight which can help swing positioning in both conferences.
Of the two teams, the Blackhawks probably have more to lose with a loss tonight; they cannot afford to lose. Expect great hockey tonight in the city that helped define modern hockey into the game it is today.