The San Jose Sharks are ready to host the third-best team in the Eastern Conference Sat., March 8. The question is whether the Montreal Canadiens are ready for their fourth game through the Pacific Division.
Potential fatigue is just one of the five pictured story lines for this game. None of them are as significant as the way the teams are trending, their health or where the game is being played.
Regarding the latter, San Jose is the best home team over the last two seasons and 23-4-4 in the 2013-14 NHL season. Montreal has a shootout win over the Anaheim Ducks sandwiched between regulation losses to the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings in the previous three games through the Pacific Division.
The Sharks are 16-6-3 against the Eastern Conference and 3-1-1 since the 2013-14 NHL season resumed after the break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. They are as healthy as they have been all season, missing only Brad Stuart and Tomas Hertl. It has resulted in a spike in scoring—18 goals in those five games.
Montreal is without gold-medalist Carey Price, Brandon Prust, Michael Bournival and San Jose product Josh Gorges. Travis Moen and Douglas Murray will make a return to the Shark Tank, though the story line of returning players will not affect the outcome of this game.
Overall, the Canadiens are still a respectable 17-13-2 on the road and an acceptable 13-11-1 against the generally superior Western Conference. Playing road games against the top four teams in the Pacific Division has a way of deflating teams from the Eastern Time Zone. They are still 3-2-1 post-Sochi Olympics, and both teams had just started winning a couple games before the break.
Montreal is not going to catch the Boston Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division and is solidly in the picture for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, three games ahead of the first non-qualifying team. However, the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs are just a game back for home-ice advantage in their likely first-round matchup.
The Sharks are a little more locked in. They are only slightly more likely than their guests to catch the first place team in their Pacific Division and need only finish above .500 the rest of the way to prevent getting caught for third. Their fight is for home-ice advantage against Central Division teams for a potential Western Conference finals.
The St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks all have better point percentages than San Jose, but the latter two are only half a game ahead. That should be enough motivation to beat a tired team that is nevertheless good enough to ensure its host's focus.
The matchup in net is the most important story line to determine the outcome of this game.
The San Jose Sharks are expected to put Antti Niemi back in net Saturday. He has struggled in his last nine games, with a 2.61 goals-against average and .889 save percentage. Alex Stalock has had only one start with a lower save percentage than that all season, and has only given up more than two goals three times in 19 games and 15 starts.
Niemi is running out of chances to show he is the best goalie on the roster before the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Montreal Canadiens are also having problems with their starting goalie because Carey Price is hurt. They also have a good backup in Peter Budaj—an easier obstacle for the bolstered San Jose scoring but certainly no sieve.
The San Jose Sharks are a possession team, making faceoffs, giveaways and takeaways key story lines for any of their games. They rank better than the Montreal Canadiens in two of the three categories, and will need to win this battle to win the game.
San Jose is one of the best teams in the NHL in the faceoff circle and in takeaways, but one of the worst in giveaways. Montreal is no better than below average in any of the three, and that will make it hard for the guests to get the scoring chances their hosts do.
The Montreal Canadiens have better percentages on both the power play and penalty kill, but they also commit more penalties. Moreover, the San Jose Sharks are getting better in both areas with the return of more healthy players, getting a whopping 17 shots on four nonetheless scoreless man-advantage opportunities Thursday.
If the Canadiens are going to win this game, they have to stay out of the box enough to out-score the Sharks on special teams.
The Montreal Canadiens are not a very big team up front, and the San Jose Sharks are. That is going to be a story line on both sides of the ice, both in front of the net and near the blue line.
The Canadiens rely heavily on a couple skilled offensive blue-liners that might find it more difficult to shoot past the sizable, shot-blocking San Jose forwards. On the other end of the ice, the defensemen will find it harder to claim real estate in front of the net for screens and rebounds.
If Montreal's blue line can handle the bigger forwards of the Sharks and its forwards can attack open ice to keep from exposing their lack of size, a road win is in reach.
The San Jose Sharks are rested, with all but four players off during the break for the Sochi Olympics, fresh legs from injured players and several capable depth forwards not even playing every day. The Montreal Canadiens have played one more game since that break and are at the end of the road trip.
"We were tired, and tired players make mistakes," coach Michel Therrien said after their loss at the Phoenix Coyotes Thursday. "Now we have to get ready for San Jose. We're in a playoff battle and we need to get some points."
That sounds like a team that has lost some confidence and blames a very real fatigue. The key story line of whether they have their legs for all three periods could prove to be the determinant for victory in a close game.