Back in town for the first time since their decimation of the Boston Bruins in the 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium, and with first place in the Atlantic Division on the line, the division-best Montreal Canadiens return to TD Garden a far different team than they were on New Year’s Day.
But so are the Bruins.
For all of Boston’s offseason subtractions off the roster, the biggest change to the club’s offensive game has come with the addition of David Backes. A do-it-all forward capable of playing center and the wing, the 32-year-old Backes, a five-year captain during his tenure with the St. Louis Blues, has tallied two goals and three points in four games for the Bruins. Meanwhile, the Canadiens improved by default with the return of the all-world Carey Price in net after a 2015-16 campaign that ended just 12 games in,and have already seen a significant boost from their point with the addition of Shea Weber, an offseason import acquired from the Nashville Predators in exchange for P.K. Subban, who is tied for the team lead in points with four.
“Well, you got a different player,” B’s coach Claude Julien said of the dynamic of Montreal’s defense changing with Weber instead of Subban. “They don’t play the same way and that’s probably why they made that deal. No doubt he’s got one of the hardest shots in the league. Very similar on the power play to an [Alex] Ovechkin-type player. You got to respect that part of it. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s a good battler, but I know he’s a good team leader, and I’ve seen that firsthand.”
Familiarity breeds contempt, and Backes and Weber undoubtedly have that, whether it’s from their days of captains in the Central Division, or their numerous battles between Team Canada and Team USA. Their additions, and especially the addition of Chicago’s Andrew Shaw for Montreal, no stranger to Backes from the Blues-Hawks rivalry or the B’s from the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, to this rivalry can only help reignite the feud after what’s been a tame few years in its 90-plus year history.
“It’s been a little bit more civilized the last few years and less of a sideshow,” Julien, who has coached both the B’s and Habs, said of the rivalry’s latest chapter. “There’s still a lot of hatred between two organizations when they meet, but I think right now and the way the game is trending with penalties and how much they can be costly to a game, I think both teams are a little cautious.
“But I still think there’s great chemistry, and I think both teams get up for these games.”
In an effort to kickstart their scoring and a power play that’s sputtered to a 1-for-14 mark on the season, center-turned-winger Ryan Spooner will draw back into the B’s lineup. A healthy scratch in Boston’s home opener, Spooner has frustrated on the team’s second line to the tune of one assist and seven shots on goal through three games this season, and the Bruins, quite simply, need more.
“He just hasn’t been good enough. He’s capable of doing more and we expect more out of him,” Julien said. “He’s a guy that can produce, he’s a guy that has to play a full game, and he’s shown that he can. It’s something that he has to do, and something that he can do, and that’s what we want.”
And Spooner, on the heels of a 13-goal, 49-point campaign a year ago, knows he has to be better.
“I wasn’t moving my feet, I think I was playing too much of a passive game,” Spooner admitted of his early season struggles. “I just need to go out there and use my speed, especially if I’m on the wing there.”
Spooner will return to his preseason spot on the left side of a Boston second line with Backes on the opposite wing and David Krejci at center and on the B’s first power-play unit.
With Spooner back in the lineup, first-year pro Danton Heinen will sit as a healthy scratch.
The 6-foot-1 Heinen has just two shots on goal and zero points in four NHL games played.
Heinen will be joined by defenseman Robbie O’Gara as the expected scratches.
Anton Khudobin gets the start for the Bruins with Tuukka Rask (general soreness) out of action and will be backed up by Zane McIntyre, while Price gets the start in net for the Canadiens. Khudobin made 20 stops in his only start of the season, a 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday, while Price stopped 27-of-29 shots in his season debut on Thursday, a 5-2 win over Arizona.
Khudobin is winless with an .867 save percentage in three career head-to-heads with the Canadiens, none of which came during his first tenure with the Bruins, while Price has 22 wins and a .923 save percentage in 34 career games against the Bruins, including 10 wins in 17 career starts at the Garden.
Here are the projected lines and pairings for the Bruins tonight
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Ryan Spooner – David Krejci – David Backes
Matt Beleskey – Riley Nash – Jimmy Hayes
Tim Schaller – Dominic Moore – Noel Acciari
Zdeno Chara – Brandon Carlo
Joe Morrow – Torey Krug
John-Michael Liles – Colin Miller