Canadiens attempt to slow high-octane Penguins

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens finally put together a strong defensive game in their last outing.

On Wednesday, it’ll be put to the test when they host the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins at the Bell Centre.

Montreal is coming off a 1-0 loss to Detroit on Monday afternoon, a defeat in which it limited the Red Wings to just 20 shots on goal — while mustering a mere 18 of their own. The Canadiens were beaten on a perfect deflection by veteran Thomas Vanek.

It was quite the contrast from the Penguins’ tilt against the Washington Capitals on Monday, in which the defending Stanley Cup champions turned a three-goal deficit into 5-3 and 7-5 leads before ultimately clinching an 8-7 win in overtime. The offensive slugfest snapped Pittsburgh’s three-game losing streak, the first of its kind for the team this season.

Already one of the top offensive teams in the NHL before the game, the Penguins (27-11-5) now rank among the top two in the league with 151 goals and average 3.51 goals per game.

While they’re filling the net, so too are their opponents. Teams are averaging just over three goals per game on goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, placing the club among the lower third in the NHL.

“I think it’s about just playing a responsible game,” coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We’ve tried to distinguish between playing fast and getting in a track meet. We don’t want to be a team that trades chance for chance. We want to make sure that we’re playing fast, but we’re also playing a responsible game where we limit teams’ opportunities to counterattack on us, or we limit teams’ opportunities to generate speed against us.”

Already down top defenseman Kris Letang — week-to-week with a lower-body injury — the Penguins will be without another key element in their defensive game against Montreal. Fourth-line center Matt Cullen — who leads Pittsburgh forwards in average short-handed ice time — will miss three to four weeks with a foot injury suffered against the Capitals.

A healthy scratch the last three games, Eric Fehr will draw back in and slot into the center role.

“I would say I probably prefer center,” Fehr told the Post-Gazette. “I haven’t played it for awhile, but it’s still probably the position that I feel like I get skating the best at and I get the most involved at.”

Monday’s game marked the first time in seven games that the Canadiens (27-12-6) held the opposition to two goals or fewer, allowing 26 during that stretch. Defenseman Andrei Markov has been sidelined since Dec. 18 with a groin injury.

The Canadiens were given a day off on Tuesday. It’s been a grueling start to 2017 for Montreal, which is in the middle of a stretch that sees the team play nine games in 15 days.

“We tightened up our defensive game, but I wish we could have scored more,” Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said after Monday’s game. “Carey (Price) was good but we didn’t skate like we usually do. I felt my team didn’t have much energy, which is understandable because this was our fifth game in eight days.”