Losing Atlantic Best for Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty – (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

No one in a Montreal Canadiens uniform would ever admit it, or even think it, and that’s probably for the best. However, from a purely big-picture standpoint, losing the Atlantic Division this season—and coming in second specifically—will likely end up producing the easier first-round matchup.

No Messing With the Metropolitan

Of course, this is assuming a great deal of things, namely the status quo staying as is, with two Metropolitan Division teams currently holding down each available wild-card spot.

By now, you’ve heard all about the Metropolitan’s prowess. Five of the top 12 teams in the league hail from the division and the weakest (standings-wise), the Philadelphia Flyers, have the same amount of points (44) as the No. 9 Ottawa Senators, who hold two games in hand. Ottawa is five points back of Montreal, in second place in the Atlantic.

So, you’re probably thinking two things right about now (other than, possibly, this pessimistic writer being unfit to so as much as read a Canadiens page):

  • If the Habs are five points up on the Senators, why are we having this conversation, as one-sided as it may be, with you screaming at your computer screen right now?
  • The Senators aren’t exactly scary, so if the Flyers have the same amount of points as them, bring ‘em and the division title on.

What Are Five Points, Really?

Carey Price
Carey Price – (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

The problem with point No. 1 is, had Montreal not come up with their comeback victory over the Florida Panthers, they would have been just three up instead. In terms of sheer optics, that’s a huge difference. And, considering, in spite of the 41-33 advantage in shots the Habs had, Montreal didn’t exactly show much desperation in a game they should have dominated. Granted, it was their second game in two nights, but it was Florida’s too.

There’s now 11 points separating the two teams and the Habs barely pulled it out? A day after they got outclassed by the Tampa Bay Lightning, another non-playoff team, and gave up a 3-1 third-period lead to lose in overtime? So, no, it’s not just about the Florida game. It’s about how the Habs started the season 13-1-1 and are now 22-9-5. It looks good on paper until you realize it means they’ve gone 9-8-4 since that near-perfect start to the season.

In other words, Habs fans have seen two versions of this team. There’s the one that jumped out to a near-insurmountable lead in the standings. There’s also the one that’s seemingly in the process of giving it all back, with goalie Carey Price even sporting an .893 save percentage since giving up four goals to the Los Angeles Kings on December 4.

Canadiens vs. ______ in Round 1

Ignoring the overstated injury situation (they’re actually below average in terms of CHIPs), it’s hard to see how the Habs can hold onto their division lead until this time next month, let alone for the rest of the season. Eight of their next 11 games are on the road. They also have a set of back-to-back games in each of the next three weeks.

And if they are able to hold on and the status quo holds constant up until the end of the season? That brings us back to point No. 2. The Habs are no longer first in the Eastern Conference. That honor belongs to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who coincidentally have a five-point lead of their own on the Habs, meaning the Habs wouldn’t face the Flyers in the first round.

They’d instead play the Washington Capitals of recent Presidents’ Trophy-winning fame. If you were the Habs, wouldn’t you rather play the third-place Boston Bruins, who they’ve essentially owned in the playoffs over the long history of the rivalry?

You can make the point that a first-round date with the Flyers instead is far from impossible. One of the ways that happens is if Montreal makes up the five-point difference between them and the Blue Jackets. That goes back to point No. 1, doesn’t it, though? Either five points is a comfortable lead that teams hardly ever give up or it isn’t.

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber – (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

It all comes down to the quality of the teams in question. You can believe the Blue Jackets lack the same degree of character and leadership that the Habs do and are liable to cough up that five-point lead over the next few months. It’s a reasonable argument… even if it begs the uncomfortable question: How did the Habs lose their lead in the standings in the first place?

Regardless, it takes two teams for a lead to change hands. If the Habs are going to catch up and get a preferential first-round matchup, it won’t matter who they end up facing, because they’ll presumably have earned that No. 1 seed as the absolute best team in the Eastern Conference. Right now, there are more questions about the nature of this team than fans have answers, though.

None of this is to suggest the Habs should throw in the towel and willingly tank. They’re professionals. However, on this New Year’s Eve, their one collective resolution should be pretty simple: Get better. If they don’t, they won’t have to tank to lose the Atlantic (and potentially much more).