BOSTON -- Bring on the Montreal Canadiens.
There will be a lot at stake when the Boston Bruins host the rival Canadiens at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday night at TD Garden. Up for grabs: the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the Northeast Division.
And, of course, perennial bragging rights for the victorious Original Six team. What makes this rivalry, which is one of the best in professional sports, even better this season is the condensed schedule. These teams will play only four times (three remaining games, including Sunday's) in the lockout-shortened, 48-game regular season.
Plus, both the Bruins and the Canadiens are playing solid hockey in the first half of this season. After Saturday's 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Bruins are riding a six-game winning streak. After Saturday night's 7-6 overtime loss to Pittsburgh, Montreal is 7-0-3 in its past 10 games.
Bruins coach Claude Julien called Sunday's matchup an "interesting" one for both teams.
"It's going to be a real good game, there's no doubt about it," Julien said. "They are playing well. You want them, they're moving the puck well, scoring goals and defensively they're good. Their goaltender is playing well, so they've got a lot of the same things going for them right now as we do. It's going to be a real good game. Last time, we had to come out in the third period and score a couple of quick ones to get the win there, and they always play a pretty good game in our building, as well, so I'm looking forward to it. I like those kinds of games."
Since the Bruins played a matinee game and the Canadiens played a nightcap against the Penguins in Montreal on Saturday, Boston will have more rest in addition to home-ice advantage. But because the stakes are so high, especially with these teams, it could go either way.
"It's going to be a big game," Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. "Obviously, it's going to be a battle for first place in the division, and they've got a streak going on, as well, so it's going to be a hard-fought game. I know the fans are definitely excited for this one coming up, so we're looking forward to the challenge. Fortunately for us, we've got the rest of the day to unwind, get a good meal in and get ready for tomorrow."
The only other time these teams played this season, the Bruins posted a 2-1, come-from-behind win on Feb. 6 at Bell Centre. Boston trailed by a goal, but scored twice in the third period for the victory.
Julien is consistent with his lineup most games because it's successful, but when the coach feels like it needs to be tweaked, Julien's not afraid to make changes, especially in the middle of a game. That's exactly what he did against the Canadiens last time when he moved Tyler Seguin to the team's top line along with David Krejci and Lucic.
That move proved crucial, as that line quickly scored the tying and winning goals on the first two shifts of the third period en route to victory.
On Sunday, Julien will stick with his current lineup that has the team in the midst of a six-game winning streak. The only small change will probably be the return of veteran tough guy Shawn Thornton, who was a healthy scratch Saturday. Prior to Saturday's come-from-behind win over the Lightning, Julien decided it would be best for the Bruins to have a more balanced lineup against Tampa, so veteran forward Jay Pandolfo replaced Thornton. With the Canadiens in town, Thornton, more than likely, will be back in the lineup because his relentless energy will be needed.
In goal, Tuukka Rask will get the nod for the Bruins. Because of back-to-back games, backup Anton Khudobin started against the Lightning and made 20 saves in the win. Rask is 11-1-2 this season with a 1.82 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. In 10 career games against Montreal, he's 2-6-1 with a 2.57 GAA and a .911 save percentage. Meanwhile, in 26 career regular-season games against the Bruins, Canadiens top goalie Carey Price is 15-8-3 with a .252 GAA and a .918 save percentage. He played Saturday night versus Pittsburgh, so it's possible he could be rested Sunday in favor of backup Peter Budaj.
From an offensive standpoint, Brad Marchand leads the Bruins with 11 goals. In 13 career regular-season games against the Canadiens, the crafty winger has two goals and three assists for five points, including a plus-3 rating and 17 penalty minutes.
Montreal has always had the ability to taunt Marchand and take him off his game. He'll need to keep his composure in order to help the Bruins be successful Sunday.
"They have a great power play, too," Marchand said. "It's always a good game when we play them. They're playing very well right now. It's going to be a huge battle. We got to make sure we're prepared and we don't sit back."
The winner of Sunday's game will own the lead in the Northeast Division. With the condensed schedule, and both teams playing extremely well this season, that divisional edge will likely swing back and forth for the remainder of the regular season.
Standings aside, when these teams play, it's always exhilarating hockey. The players know it. The fans love it. Now it's only fitting that both teams are among the elite in the Eastern Conference.
"It's going to be a tough battle," said Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron. "Against Montreal, it's always the same game. They're always hard to play against. They're always tough games, tight games and we're aware of the standings, so it's going to be a big game [Sunday]."
The atmosphere will be an exciting one Sunday night. The Garden will be rocking. Bring on the Montreal Canadiens.