It’s about time to face the fact the Montreal Canadiens are likely to make the playoffs. The next logical step is to consider who their potential playoffs opponents in the first round will be. Of course, nothing is certain, least of all any of the matchups listed below. And the Canadiens are far from out the woods, in their efforts to clinch a spot in the first place.
At this point though, it shouldn’t be as much about bracing for disappointment as embracing the probability that the Canadiens make it. With the Habs legitimately contending for a playoff spot now, a top draft pick is out of the question now. So, the worst-case scenario is what? They come up short and get a higher draft pick than if they were to make it?
Seeing as the best-case scenario entering this season in the minds of many realistic fans had been that they miss them altogether, how bad would that be, really? And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, how bad would it be if they make them only to then make an early exit, only to secure a slightly lower pick? Not that much worse… while a long playoff run?
A long run would undeniably be pretty great. So, here’s to the Canadiens capturing the minds of an entire city these playoffs, starting with the first round.
5. Boston Bruins
It maybe wouldn’t be the dream matchup, but facing the Boston Bruins (again) would come pretty close for the Canadiens. From a winnability standpoint, the Canadiens are 25-9 against the Bruins in the playoffs.
Plus, from an entertainment-value perspective, the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry is one of the biggest in all of sports. However, the Bruins are the least-likely opponents that the Habs would end up facing. First, the Habs, who trail the third-place Bruins by five points, would have to get into a seeded position in the Atlantic, while the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are tied for second in the league and likely trending higher, would have to fall out of one altogether.
So, Habs fans will likely have to make do with a Bruins-Leafs first-round matchup instead. Thankfully, again from an entertainment-value perspective, there are far worse things in the world.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
This is undeniably the matchup Maple Leafs fans would prefer. So too would the rest of Canada, seeing as the last playoff series between the Canadiens and their historic rivals came in 1979 (with the Habs sweeping the Leafs in the second round). Again, though, the five-point difference between the Bruins and Canadiens (one game in hand) stands in between it from happening.
The hype alone might make this potential series worth it, but Habs fans had better just come to terms with the bright side: They won’t have to spend two weeks listening to the CBC announcers tripping over themselves trying to explain how much of a favorite the Leafs are in the series… in spite of how they’ve yet to win a round since before the lockout. No, not that lockout. The one before.
3. Washington Capitals
Some good news, Habs fans: The chances are slim that the Canadiens end up facing the reigning Stanley Cup-champion Washington Capitals in the first round. The only way is if the Capitals overcome a three-point deficit to overtake the Islanders as the No. 1 seed in the Metropolitan Division and the Habs stay put in the first wild-card spot down the stretch.
While it would be the first time the two teams face each other since Jaroslav Halak stole the show and almost singlehandedly upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals in 2010, things might very likely turn out differently this time around. They may not be as scary as last year’s incarnation, but there’s plenty still to fear.
For starters, stars Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson, the only Capitals remnants from that 2010 team, may have chips on their shoulders. Ditto for ex-Canadiens Lars Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly. I also have it on good authority the team that had to lose to learn how to win suddenly found out how.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Of course, the 2010 Capitals can serve as inspiration that Presidents’ Trophy winners can be taken out in the first round by the Canadiens. And that’s the exact Herculean task the Habs would find themselves having to complete should they fall to the second wild-card spot and be forced into facing the Atlantic Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning (who have 15 points on the four teams tied for second place; This is really a one-team race at this point).
Still, while Habs fans will have no choice to believe in the Canadiens, they can’t possibly be able to do all that great of a job deluding themselves into thinking that lightning can strike twice (pun intended). Not only do the Lightning have the league’s leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov, but its sixth and seventh-leading goal-scorers in Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos, not to mention a whole host of other weapons up front. If Stamkos is only the third guy you need to worry about, you’ve got problems.
That’s saying nothing of Victor Hedman on defense and Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. As impressive as Carey Price’s bounce-back season has been, there’s no other way to frame the potential matchup than one in which the Habs trail the Lightning by a significant talent margin in all three areas. Maybe even behind the bench, between Claude Julien and Jon Cooper. Make no mistake, facing the Lightning is the worst possible outcome for the Canadiens. Thankfully, it’s not the likeliest.
1. New York Islanders
The likeliest playoff opponents for the Habs are also probably the ones they would most like to face: the New York Islanders. Indeed, if the status quo stays intact, the Habs would face the Islanders, who, somehow, lead the Metropolitan Division this late into the season.
There’s little disputing how impressive the Islanders’ season has been. Under the guidance of Jack Adams Award-favorite Barry Trotz, the Islanders have silenced their critics similarly to how the Habs have theirs so far. The only difference is the Islanders have done it without their best player from last year, Leafs forward John Tavares. The Habs got one of theirs back in Shea Weber.
Of course, Habs fans must look at the Islanders as ripe for eliminating because of their unassuming roster. Two things, though: First off, the Habs were favored against the New York Rangers two playoffs ago and that didn’t turn out so hot. Secondly, the Islanders and their fans are likely looking at the Pittsburgh Penguins and then the Canadiens as potential first-round opponents and thinking the same thing.
How likely is it that the Canadiens face the Islanders? Well, heading into Saturday night action, the Canadiens have the exact same three-point cushion with one less game played over the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes that the Islanders do in the Metropolitan over the second-place Washington Capitals. So, one way of looking at it is the Habs have about as much chance of facing the Islanders as they do of missing the playoffs completely. That’s sobering in one way, but exciting in another.
It’s hard not to look at how the playoff picture is shaping up and how, should the Habs cross over to the Metropolitan, their path to a potential Stanley Cup Final appearance would be considerably easier. Sure, the Canadiens could just as easily miss the playoffs, but dare to dream.