Canadiens face tough battle with Capitals

The Montreal Canadiens will get a good measure of where they stand in this early season when they host the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals at Bell Centre on Thursday.

The Canadiens, who finished 14th in the Eastern Conference last season, are 6-3-2, but are coming off one of their poorest performances of the season, a 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on home ice Tuesday. It was the Stars’ first road win of the season.

This will be the second of a three-game homestand for the Canadiens, which concludes Saturday when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Canadiens are in the first wild-card position in the Eastern Conference.

Canadiens coach Claude Julien wasn’t sure Wednesday who would be available to face the Capitals. Top forwards Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron did not practice Wednesday. Gallagher is expected to play while Byron’s (lower body) status is uncertain.

If Byron cannot play, forward Andrew Shaw, who has battled a series of injuries (concussion and knee) and has been a healthy scratch for the past two games, could be back in the lineup.

“It’s really hard. My game isn’t at the level it should be,” Shaw told the team’s website. “I missed a lot of games. With the speed of games night after night, I have to be at my best … I’ll be ready when the team needs me.”

Julien was preaching patience with Shaw, who is at his best when he plays an energy game and agitates the opposition.

“We had a conversation and we were honest. He listened and he understood. At the end of the day, it isn’t his fault or mine,” Julien told reporters at his daily briefing. “We have to work together to get him back playing his best hockey. He had a lot of major injuries, so he has to get back on track.

“When Shaw is at his best, he brings a lot to the table. He can play on the top lines, on the power play and on the penalty kill. He can also be an energy player on the fourth line. He can bring a little bit of everything.”

Julien also juggled his lines after the loss to the Capitals with an interesting all-Finns line of Artturi Lehkonen, rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armian skating together in practice.

Carey Price will start in goal for the Canadiens and will face Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who is showing no signs of a Stanley Cup hangover. Ovechkin leads the Capitals with eight goals, three off the league lead held by Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins.

The Canadiens have been one of Ovechkin’s favorite teams to play against over the years. He had 49 points (27 goals and 22 assists) in 46 games against the Canadiens. Ovechkin seems to light up when he plays in the electric atmosphere at Bell Centre.

Capitals rookie coach Todd Reirden said Ovechkin has become a more well-rounded player.

“I’ve liked how his overall game has been good and consistent, and I’ve liked how his first 10 games have been compared to last year’s 10 games,” Reirden told NHL.com. “Maybe he had a few more goals initially, obviously, with the hat tricks and stuff like that, but his overall game for me is better.”

Ovechkin started last season with seven goals in two games — three against the Ottawa Senators and four against the Canadiens.

Ovechkin modified his offseason workouts, taking more time off between sessions last summer.

“Mentally, I feel better,” he told NHL.com. “But physically, it’s hard to say because last year we had a different schedule. Last year, almost every second day we had a game. and this year as soon as you get in a rhythm then you have days off. But right now, almost every second day we’re going to have a game, so it’s going to be fun.”

The Capitals (5-3-2, fourth in the Metropolitan Division) will finish a four-game road trip against the Canadiens. They are 2-1-0 so far on the trip across Canada.

Capitals defenseman Brooks Orik will miss the game against the Canadiens after sustaining a lower body injury against the Calgary Flames on Saturday. The Capitals called up Aaron Ness from their Hershey farm team in the AHL.