BOSTON, MA - MARCH 3: Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins lets in a goal against the Montreal Canadiens at the TD Garden on March 3, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Rivalry Night on NBCSN: Canadiens, Bruins look to break Northeast tie


Throughout the season, NBCSN will feature the NHL’s fiercest rivalries on Wednesday nights. Tonight the Montreal Canadiens will head to TD Garden for a match against the Boston Bruins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

The Bruins and Canadiens have spent the better part of the season battling for the Northeast Division title and that battle is far from resolved. Going into tonight’s contest, the two teams are tied with 45 points, although Montreal has played in one more game than Boston.

Both of these teams have gotten this far thanks to solid defense, strong goaltending, and an offensive core that’s shown its depth this season.

The fact that Boston is in this race isn’t much of a surprise. There was some concern that goaltender Tuukka Rask might not be able to seamlessly assume Tim Thomas’ starting duties, but after serving as a strong backup for years, Rask’s 2013 performance can’t be considered a shock.

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Instead, the Canadiens are the Cinderella story. They’ve benefited from the emergence of rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, but when the season started, their core wasn’t dramatically different than the one that finished in the basement of the Eastern Conference in 2011-12.

Perhaps the biggest difference has been behind the bench, where Michel Therrien is now running the show. Under him, the Canadiens have gone from one of the worst power-play teams in the NHL to one of the best. Of course, having a finally healthy Andrei Markov join P.K. Subban as the team’s top two blueliners with the man advantage helps too.

Not many teams in the league can afford to take penalties against the Canadiens, but if there’s one that can endure, it’s Boston. The Bruins have a league-leading 91.7 penalty killing percentage.

These two teams have played each other twice this season and both contests were decided by a goal. It wouldn’t be surprising if tonight’s game ended up being just as close.

Probable goaltenders: BOS – Rask (15-4-3, 1.90 GAA, .928 SV%) | MON – Peter Budaj (4-1-1, 2.47 GAA, .903 SV%)

Top scorers: BOS – Patrice Bergeron (9-18-27, 31 GP) | MON – Max Pacioretty (9-16-25, 28 GP)

Notable Injuries:
Boston – Forwards: Chris Kelly (leg), Marc Savard (concussion) Defenseman: Adam McQuaid (shoulder), Johnny Boychuk (foot)
Montreal – Forwards: Brandon Prust (shoulder), Ryan White (lower body), Rene Bourque (concussion) Defenseman: Yannick Weber (knee), Raphael Diaz (concussion)

Stafford to be Buffalo’s latest healthy scratch tonight vs. Montreal

Drew Stafford

Buffalo’s Drew Stafford may be a former 30-goal scorer, but that’s not enough to keep him in the Buffalo Sabres lineup tonight against Montreal.

Stafford will watch tonight’s game against the Canadiens from the press box as The Buffalo News’ John Vogl shares, and he’s disappointed in himself for earning coach Ron Rolston’s ire.

“It’s definitely disappointing, but it’s his decision and something I have to respect,” Stafford said in Bell Centre. “I have to work my way back into the lineup. It’s no secret I haven’t been getting on the score sheet.”

He can say that again. Stafford has just four goals this season in 31 games with two of those coming against Ottawa a week ago today. He’s gone without a goal in three straight since then. He hasn’t been alone in getting healthy scratched lately as Jochen Hecht, Nathan Gerbe, and Patrick Kaleta have all been benched in the past month.

With the Sabres earning points in four of their last five games, winning three of those, the benchings will continue until the message gets through.

Canadiens claim Halpern off waivers from Rangers

Jeff Halpern

The Montreal Canadiens are welcoming home a familiar face.

Jeff Halpern was claimed off waivers from the New York Rangers and he’ll go from a team that’s not living up to expectations to one that’s vastly surpassing them.

Halpern played for the Habs during the 2010-11 season and played well for them in a third/fourth line role scoring 11 goals with 15 assists. He’ll likely assume a role on Montreal’s fourth line now as coach Michel Therrien has been using guys like Ryan White and Gabriel Dumont in that role this season.

This season with the Rangers, Halpern has no goals and one assist in 30 games and found himself a healthy scratch recently before being waived. He’s a veteran performer, however, and gives Montreal better depth up the middle.

Kovalev and Lindros to play in Montreal alumni game

Alex Kovalev #27 of the Montreal Canadiens skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during their NHL game at the Air Canada Centre March 29, 2008 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (March 29, 2008 - Source: None/Getty Images North America)

A pair of dubious figures in Montreal as well as Quebec hockey will be on the ice once again in “La belle province.”

Former Canadiens captain and recent retiree Alex Kovalev and former Quebec Nordiques No. 1 draft pick Eric Lindros will both be participating in an alumni all-star game at Bell Centre tomorrow, as The Montreal Gazette reports. Is it bad form to boo players in an alumni game? That could happen.

Kovalev, who retired from the NHL this week, didn’t leave Montreal under the greatest of circumstances and wound up being a focus of bad feelings and boos when he returned as a visiting Ottawa Senators forward.

Lindros, meanwhile, was persona non grata in Quebec thanks to his famous spurning of the Nordiques after the team drafted him first overall in 1991 only to demand a trade saying he’d never play for the then sorry Quebec franchise. Once the Nordiques moved to Denver, the bad feelings moved on to Montreal where he received similar bad feelings from Habs fans.

It might be worth it to actually get a ticket to this game just to see how warmly (or not) both guys are received by the fans.

Thomas Vanek leaves Sabres game vs. Canadiens

Thomas Vanek

The Buffalo Sabres haven’t had many bright spots to consider in a miserable 2013 season, but Thomas Vanek’s play has been one of them. For that reason, Buffalo must be holding its breath because the star winger needed to leave the ice during Monday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, according to RDS’ Renaud Lavoie.

Vanek took a shot to his leg during a Sabres power play and appeared to have trouble putting weight on it, according to various observers.

It’s too early to tell how serious the ailment might be (or what it is specifically), but Vanek’s had some minor issues already this season. He missed three games early in March with an upper-body injury.

While he’s no longer atop the NHL’s scorers like he was to start the season, he’s still had a great year with 31 points in 26 games.