The Washington Capitals break the seal on the home portion of their 2016-2017 season on Saturday night when they host the Montreal Canadiens at Capital One Arena. This is the second time in four seasons that the Caps opened at home against Montreal, the previous instance – the only other time the Caps faced the Canadiens in a home opener – being a 2-1 Gimmick loss to open the 2014-2015 season.
The Caps are coming off a come-from-behind, 5-4 Gimmick win over the Ottawa Senators, a contest in which Alex Ovechkin recorded his 18th career hat trick. Montreal also won their season opener in a Gimmick, Jonathan Drouin potting the game-deciding trick shot in a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. It was also a come-from-behind affair for the Canadiens, who twice fell behind the Sabres by a goal.
The Caps won last season’s series in an odd fashion, winning both games played at Bell Centre in Montreal (by scores of 4-1 and 3-2), but they lost the only contest at Capital One Arena (then Verizon Center), 2-1.
The Canadiens have had, if not quite as long as the Caps, a string of postseason frustrations of their own. Since they won the Stanley Cup in 1993, they have reached the postseason only 15 times in 23 seasons, and since reaching the Eastern Conference final in 2014, failed to get out of the second round in their two playoff appearances in three seasons since. They will try to improve upon that in Claude Julien’s second season in what is his second tour as Montreal head coach He began his NHL head coaching career with Montreal serving from 2003-2006). Strangely enough, his winning percentage as a coach is worst behind the Canadiens’ bench (.552) than it was in either of his two other postings, with Boston (.614 over ten seasons, including a Stanley Cup in 2011) and New Jersey (.646 in his only season with the Devils).
1. Montreal had a strange penalty profile last season. They were one of only four teams (along with San Jose, Edmonton, and Anaheim) to be charged with at least one of every category of penalty: minor, major, misconduct, game misconduct, match, and bench.
2. If possession on power plays means something, Montreal did a poor job in starting power plays with it. Only one team in the league had fewer than the 189 power play faceoff wins than Montreal had last season (Columbus had 178). Then again, the Canadiens had the fourth-fewest power play opportunities in the league (229).
3. The Canadiens had the best winning percentage in the league last season when trailing games after two periods (.314) on a record of 11-20-4.
4. If the Capitals had their challenges scoring at 4-on-4 last season (they did not have a 4-on-4 goal in the regular season), Montreal was not far behind. The Canadiens had one such goal. They did, however, do a better job in disallowing 4-on-4 goals yielding two to the Caps’ four.
5. Extra time was good to the Canadiens last season. They had the second-highest number of overtime goals (11) while allowing seven (tied for tenth). Added to their 3-2 record in the Gimmick, Montreal was 14-9 in extra time games. They were 33-26 in games settled in regulation.
1. The Capitals trail the all-time series against Montreal, 69-71-5, with 17 ties. However, consider the Caps went their first five seasons without a win over the Habs (0-30-2). The Caps have not lost a season series to Montreal since the 2006-2007 season, when they lost three of four games to the Canadiens. Over the last ten seasons the Caps are 23-8-4 against Montreal overall and 9-6-2 at home.
2. Last season the Caps won two of three games against Montreal and outscored them, 8-5. Nicklas Backstrom had three of the goals, one in each game. No other Capital had more than one in the season series.
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded his fourth career game-deciding trick shot in the win over Ottawa, tied with Matt Hendricks for fourth-most in Caps history (Ovechkin leads with ten).
4. Backstrom (3-1-4) and Alex Ovechkin (1-3-4) led the club in scoring against Montreal last season.
5. It would surprise no one that Alex Ovechkin is the Caps’ all-time leader in goals scored against Montreal (23 in 42 games). What might be mildly surprising is that he is tied for the franchise lead in assists against the Habs, and not with Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin and Mike Gartner have 21 assists against the Canadiens as Capitals.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Montreal: Carey Price
If Braden Holtby is not the best goaltender in the NHL (you Sergei Bobrovsky fans notwithstanding), Carey Price seems the likely owner of that description. Since he arrived in the NHL in 2007-2008, he is one of four goaltenders to appear in at least 200 games, post a goals against average of 2.40 or lower, record a save percentage of .920 or better, and put at least 30 shutouts on his resume (Holtby is in that group, too). After appearing in just 12 games of the 2015-2016 season, due to a knee injury, Price rebounded smartly in 2016-2017, finishing eighth in goals-against average (2.23), 12th in save percentage (.923), while posting three shutouts and 37 wins (minimum: 1000 minutes). It was a performance good enough to earn him a finalist spot in the voting on the Vezina Trophy for the league’s top goalie (he finished third, behind Holtby and the winner, Bobrovsky). Price had a rather typical, for him, season against the Caps in 2016-2017, going 1-2-0, 2.69, .911. It was entirely consistent with his career record against the Caps of 6-11-4, 3.03, .900, with one shutout. He has been better in Washington, though, going 4-3-1, 2.23, .926 in eight appearances in D.C.
Washington: Braden Holtby
In recent years, the Washington-Montreal match-up has had a subtext to it, that being the Braden Holtby-Carey Price match-up. And Holtby has not lacked for success against the Canadiens. Holtby has a sparkling 10-1-2, 1.62, .941 record in 14 games against Montreal, with a pair of shutouts added to that line. The odd part of that line is how little of it has come at home. Holtby has only five appearances against Montreal on home ice, where he is 2-1-1, 2.00, .923.
What Holtby will be competing with to extend his mastery over the Canadiens is his propensity for slow season starts. Coming into this season he was 2-3-2, 3.50, .881 in seven “first games” of his season. While he improved generally in his “second games” – 4-2-0 (one no-decision), 2.73, .915, with one shutout – his cannot be called a “Holtby-like” level of performance in those games. In his first appearance of the 2017-2018 campaign, Holtby was, unfortunately, true to form, even if he did get the win – 28 saves on 32 shots (a .875 save percentage).
In the end…
When two elite goalies lock horns, things might come down to a moment, a mistake, or a mental lapse. The Caps had more than a few against the Ottawa Senators in the 5-4 season opening win (note: Ottawa scored four or more goals just 19 times last season, 24th in the league). Hopefully, it was an example of the Caps working out some early season kinks as they fold a number of new ingredients into the recipe. If it is an indicator of the level of support Holtby will get over the course of the season, or for too much of the early part of it, it will be a hard season ahead. This game might be a decent test, the Caps facing a team that ranked just 15th in scoring offense last season, tied for 18th in scoring offense on the road. Additions such as Jonathan Drouin and Alex Hemsky might make the Canadiens a more formidable offense, but the Caps need to button things up.
Capitals 4 - Canadiens 2