If the Montreal Canadiens were suddenly interviewing for a job, they’d have no choice but to lie through their teeth when inevitably asked if they mind working overtime. After all, the results don’t lie: The Habs and (three-on-three) overtime just don’t work, like at all.
At 0-8 in overtime and shootouts this season, the Canadiens have instead been shooting themselves in the foot all season so long. It’s gotten so bad, interim head coach Dominique Ducharme half-joked during a recent media availability session “I wish that we had five-on-five overtime.”
You know what? Wish granted!
(As long as the Canadiens actually end up reaching the postseason anyway)
In effect, as one of the league’s dominant teams in terms of possession at five-on-five, there’s little reason for the Habs or their fans to be overly concerned with their brutal success rate winning games past regulation in the regular season (0% to be clear). If everything holds true, they should have little problem keeping up in overtime come the postseason, during which traditional rules apply.
Truth be told, there’s every reason to believe they’ll get a chance to find out for sure too. In fact, there are three reasons (at least) that say the Habs still make the playoffs despite all the points they’ve been leaving on the table. Here they are:
3. Carey Price’s Return to Form
There is no denying that this is goalie Carey Price’s team. General manager Marc Bergevin effectively built this team around him, insulating him with the acquisitions of defensive defensemen Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson.
Even backup Jake Allen, who has theoretically outplayed Price to start the season, was acquired for his benefit, to keep him rested. While the strategy hasn’t exactly worked to perfection, there are signs that Price is regaining the form he displayed last postseason, when he led the league in goals-against average (1.78) and ranked second in save percentage (.936).
True, Price’s stats may be mediocre overall (2.66 GAA, .907 SV%). However, in March so far, he has a SV% of .938. The stretch of success actually predates the decision to let goaltending coach Stephane Waite go and replace him with Sean Burke, to be clear. So, there’s a fairly decent chance Price had been working himself out of his funk himself and can sustain this stretch of relative dominance for at least a while longer.
Furthermore, consider how Price’s shorthanded save percentage is actually what had been dragging down his stats (and he’s been consistently good at even strength). As a result, as long as the Canadiens stay disciplined, both he and the team as a whole should be all right.
Case in point, the 4-2-3 record the Habs have in March, since Price found his form, may seem unimpressive, but it actually translates to a .611 points percentage. That in turn translates to 100 points over 82 games. That’s enough to guarantee a playoff spot in the worst of times. Needless to say, as long as the Canadiens and Price keep it up, they’ll be sweating in the face of unlimited playoff overtime instead in no time.
2. Still Canadiens’ Spot to Lose
It’s an old cliché, but it applies nonetheless: The Canadiens’ collective fate rests in their hands and theirs alone. As the fourth-place team in the North Division, the Habs currently find themselves in a playoff spot. As long as they keep winning more than the teams below them, they’re in. It’s that simple.
More than that though, they’re relatively entrenched in the spot they’ve got. All due respect to the Ottawa Senators, no one expects them to make the playoffs. Even if they’ve had some success against the Canadiens this season, 11 points back, they’re unlikely to catch up to say the least. That leaves the Vancouver Canucks (two points fewer than the Canadiens but four more games played) and Calgary Flames (three points fewer, one more game played). Ultimately, mathematically speaking, it will take a far greater swoon than the Habs experienced earlier this season to cost them what right now is firmly theirs. In spite of their struggles, they’ve still got a 93.2% chance of making the playoffs.
Furthermore, it’s not like the Habs are unable to gain ground themselves. With only six points separating them from the top-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs (Habs have one game in hand, heading into action Friday night) and 27 games to play, including six between the two sides, the Habs are still fully capable of coming back to win the division. All they’ve got to do is rediscover some of the chemistry they displayed to open the season, when they proved they could hang with and even dominate almost every other team in the division.
It may sound easier said than done, but all the moving parts have stayed the same. If the Canadiens were able to run roughshod through opponents under less than ideal circumstances to start the season, they can do it again as the playing field levels out.
1. Easiest Remaining Schedule in North Division
All of a sudden that six-game road trip to start the season doesn’t seem so bad. Granted, that’s in large part because the Canadiens jumped out the gate, earning a 4-0-2 record on it.
Now, having just returned from a separate 2-2-2 trip, the Canadiens can now enjoy the proverbial fruits of their labor. Of the 27 games that remain, 17 are in the friendly confines of the Bell Centre. That’s by far the most of any other team in the North Division, with the Oilers for example having only nine home dates remaining.
Admittedly, the Habs’ 5-5-1 record at home doesn’t instill all that much confidence in the likelihood they take advantage. However, of note, after starting out 3-5 at home under ex-head coach Claude Julien, the Habs are 2-0-1 under Ducharme. It’s not a necessarily proof of a trend in the right direction, but it at least shows the Habs have moved on from their earlier performance anxiety in front of no one at all at the Bell Centre.
Furthermore, in spite of the fact the Habs have the most games left of any divisional rival heading into action on Friday (and most chances to collect points), they have “only” four sets of back-to-back games left. Only the Canucks have fewer (three). Meanwhile, both the Flames and Maple Leafs have six each.
The Maple Leafs actually face the Canadiens in the final back-to-back for each team to close out the regular season. In spite of how things look now, with the Leafs in first place and the Habs in fourth, that final series can end up having massive playoff implications. Don’t count the Habs out yet. There’s good reason(s) to believe they’ll be there in the end.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.