NHL Preview from The Sports Network
Saturday, March 22nd (All times Eastern)
Montreal Canadiens (38-26-7) at Toronto Maple Leafs (36-27-8), 7 p.m.
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Toronto Maple Leafs will try to halt a three-game slide on Saturday when they host the rival Montreal Canadiens in an important Eastern Conference battle at Air Canada Centre.
The recent 0-3-0 stretch has hurt Toronto's playoff chances, but the club hopes to get back on track in the finale of the regular-season series with the Habs. The showdown is loaded with postseason implications for both teams, but as of Saturday, the Maple Leafs need the win slightly more than the Canadiens.
With 80 points, Toronto is currently occupying the first of the East's two wild card spots, but is only three points behind the Habs for third place in the Atlantic Division. The top three clubs in each division earn automatic bids to the playoffs while the remaining two spots in each conference are up for grabs via wild cards.
Tampa Bay is currently two points ahead of Montreal for second place in the Atlantic. Boston, which became the first team to clinch a playoff berth with a win on Friday, is currently running away with the division crown as it holds a 16-point lead over the Lightning atop the Atlantic.
The Maple Leafs also have to keep an eye on Detroit, which is currently outside of the playoff picture but only three points behind Toronto. The Red Wings, who are tied with Washington in the East standings, also hold two games in hand over Toronto. Detroit visits Minnesota on Saturday.
The Canadiens and Leafs each have two wins in the 2013-14 season series, but Toronto has gained one more point (5) in the matchup thanks to an overtime loss when the clubs met last on March 1 in Montreal. Max Pacioretty notched the game-winner for the Habs in that meeting, scoring on the power play with 1:32 left in OT.
Toronto has won five of the last nine meetings overall and has taken two of the past three at Air Canada Centre. Montreal has four wins over the past six encounters at ACC.
The Maple Leafs were the victims of a Steven Stamkos hat trick in their most recent loss, a 5-3 home setback in Wednesday's game against the Lightning. It was the second loss in three home games for Toronto, which had won seven straight at ACC heading into the month of March.
Stamkos netted a natural hat trick, while both Ryan Malone and Valtteri Filppula added two assists to down Toronto, which fell to 22-12-1 as the host this season.
"You can definitely tell they had more jump that we did," offered Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle.
Jake Gardiner, Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin lit the lamp for the Maple Leafs. Tyler Bozak also picked up two assists, but James Reimer allowed all five goals on 30 shots in defeat.
It's unclear if Reimer will get a fourth straight start on Saturday, or if No. 1 netminder Jonathan Bernier can return from a strained groin. Bernier was injured on March 13 in Los Angeles, but the Quebec native practiced in full gear on Friday and could get the start this evening.
However, the 25-year-old Bernier has not fared well in five career games against Montreal, going 1-3-1 with a 3.40 goals against average and .895 save percentage. Reimer is 5-3-0 with a 2.73 GAA and .919 save percentage in nine career games versus the Habs. In light of those numbers, Carlyle could opt to rest Bernier for another day on Saturday and save him for Sunday's road battle with New Jersey.
Leafs centerman Dave Bolland could also return to action Saturday for the first time since severing a tendon in his ankle on Nov. 2. Bolland, who was acquired in a trade with Chicago over the summer, had six goals and four assists in 15 games before the injury. On Friday, Carlyle said Bolland is day- to-day and a game-time decision for this evening's battle.
While Toronto could be getting some pieces back on Saturday, the Canadiens learned on Friday that forward Brandon Prust will miss the rest of the regular season due to an upper-body injury. Prust has six goals and seven assists in 52 games this season and also played a key role on Montreal's checking line.
The Canadiens played their first game without Prust in Thursday's 3-2 home loss against Columbus. Ryan Johansen scored the deciding goal with 3:01 remaining as the Blue Jackets snapped Montreal's three-game winning streak with a regulation win.
"Tonight was a bad night for our team," Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien said. "We played a poor game."
Montreal lost despite getting a 37-save performance from Carey Price, with Brendan Gallagher and Thomas Vanek each potting goals in defeat.
Vanek has four goals over his last two games after failing to hit the net in his first five outings with Montreal. The 30-year-old sniper was acquired at the trade deadline from the New York Islanders and has recorded 22 goals and 26 assists over 49 career games against the Leafs.
Price will get the start in net for Montreal on Saturday. He is 12-13-1 with a 2.72 GAA and .914 save percentage in 26 career games versus Toronto.
Beginning with Saturday's test, the Canadiens are playing two straight and five of their next six games away from Montreal. The Habs are 18-14-2 as the guest this season.
03/22 10:43:24 ET