With only eight games left in the regular season, the Montreal Canadiens are back at the top of the Northeast Division following a convincing 5-1 win over the lowly Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. As it stands right now, the team sits in the second playoff position in the Eastern Conference and would face the surprising New York Islanders if they playoffs were starting tonight.
The final stretch will be very interesting as the Habs are battling for the conference lead, only five points behind the Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins with one game in hand. Montreal is also fighting for their division title against their hated rivals, the injury-depleted Boston Bruins, who are only one point back of the Canadiens with the same number of games. The team standing in fifth position is the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are eight points back of Montreal, making it almost impossible for the Leafs to catch up the Habs before the season’s end.
This means the Canadiens will either finish second or fourth in the conference, which means they will face the fifth or the seventh place team in the first round of the 2013 NHL playoffs. With that being said, let’s take a look at six potential matchups for the surprising Canadiens:
Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. New York Islanders (7)
The surging Islanders are surprising everyone this season, especially in their last ten games, going 8-1-1. Led by the dynamic duo of John Tavares (42 pts) and Matt Moulson (39 pts), the Islanders are a surprising 12-5-2 on the road this season. With veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov in net who has a lot of playoff experience, the Isles have been the Habs’ nemesis in 2013, winning two out of three games against Montreal.
Despite their success against la Sainte Flanelle, the Islanders would be heavy underdogs against the Canadiens, especially because of their lack of depth at every position; they only have three 10-goal scorers this season compared to Montreal’s ten 20-point players. Long Island might be able to win a game, but they are not strong enough to come out on top in a seven-game series. Prediction: Montreal wins in 5 games.
Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. New York Rangers (7)
By far the toughest team to assess in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers were heavy favorites to finish atop of the conference before the season. Well, things didn’t go according to plan and they are now fighting for a playoff berth. With all-star netminder Henrik Lundqvist in goal and a good defensive corps, especially if Marc Staal is healthy for the playoffs, the Blue Shirts are one of the best defensive teams in the league.
New York can also score goals with Rick Nash (35 pts), Derek Stepan (34 pts) and Brad Richards (23 pts) leading the way offensively. The new acquisitions of Derrick Brassard, Ryane Clowe and Mats Zuccarello gives the Rangers more depth than ever, which is why their are an opponent that you don’t want to face in the playoffs. However, the Canadiens have had the Rangers’ number in recent years, winning all three matchups against the Rags this season, outscoring them 9-1! Prediction: Montreal wins in 6 games
Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. Winnipeg Jets (7)
The fairly inconsistent Jets are hanging out in the chase for a playoff spot despite an up-and-down season. Currently on the outside looking in with 44 points in 42 games, Winnipeg has a fairly easy schedule with four of their last six games at home against easy opponents. The Habs have won both games at home vs. the Jets this season, and the last confrontation is slated to happen at MTS Centre on the last game of the season for both teams.
Led by Andrew Ladd (38 pts), Blake Wheeler (32 pts) and Evander Kane (31 pts) at forward and the Dustin Byfuglien (24 pts) and Tobias Enstrom (15 pts in only 23 games), the Jets can score goals, but they are lacking the offensive depth of the Habs’ other potential opponents. With a very inconsistent Ondrej Pavelec in goal, who has a tendency to allow soft goals, Winnipeg is no match for the well-balanced and powerful Blue Blanc et Rouge. Prediction: Montreal wins in 5 games.
Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)
The red-hot Capitals have climbed their way back into playoff contention following an 8-1-1 stretch in their last ten games. The Capitals are now leading the weak Southeast with only 46 points in 41 games, two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets. With Alexander Ovechkin (44 pts) and Nicklas Backstrom (42 pts) playing at the top of their game, the Capitals remain a dangerous team in the Eastern Conference and a team that could surprise many pundits. Add Mike Ribeiro (39 pts), Troy Brouwer (28 pts) and John Carlson (20 pts) to the mix and Washington can match up offensively with the Habs.
A healthy Mike Green, who now has nine goals on the season, and the acquisition of Martin Erat will give even more depth to the Capitals, who will visit the Canadiens on April 20th, 2013. The weakness of the Capitals is in front of the net, with two very inconsistent youngsters in Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. The season series is currently tied 1-1, and there is no reason to believe that this series couldn’t be very long. Prediction: Montreal wins in 7 games.
Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (7)
The close division rivals would make for a great series against the Canadiens and would mark the first time ever that both teams would meet in the playoffs. This series would most likely turn into an epic goaltending battle between two of the league’s strongest netminders in Craig Anderson and Carey Price.
With key players such as Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, and Jared Cowen all injured for a long time. While the Senators have been able to survive and remain in playoff contention despite their lack of depth following so many injuries, the team has slowed down, going 4-6 in their past ten games.
The Senators have scored 28 less goals than the Habs and their best scorers are Kyle Turris (24 pts), Daniel Alfredsson (22 pts) and Sergei Gonchar (22 pts). The season series between the two rivals was tied 2-2, with the Senators earning an extra point with an overtime loss in the last matchup. The lack of depth of the Senators will be their demise in a seven-game series and I just don’t them being able to contain Montreal’s top-9 game in and game out. Prediction: Montreal wins in 6 games.
Montreal Canadiens (4) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (5)
Currently leading the season series 2-1, the Toronto Maple Leafs are set to host the Canadiens at Air Canada Centre on Saturday, a game that should give us a good idea of how both teams respond in a very important game with the playoffs looming. The two hated divisional rivals haven’t faced each other since 1979 and most their respective fans haven’t had the pleasure to watch it. This would make for an epic matchup in the first round and I am not sure most fans could stomach the stress associated to an intense and tightly-contested series between the two original-six teams.
Brandon Prust dropping the gloves vs. Mark Fraser
The Leafs have been able to rely on better goaltending from James Reimer, who has a 15-5-5 record to go along with a 2.51 GAA and a .919 save %. Reimer has never appeared in the postseason just as a great number of Leafs players, since Toronto is the only NHL team that has yet to make the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout. Led by surprising youngster Nazem Kadri (40 pts) and sniper Phil Kessel (40 pts), the Maple Leafs can score goals in bunches and if Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur can stay healthy, Toronto can roll three good offensive lines. With a much-improved penalty kill this season, the Leafs are not afraid to play physical and deliver thunderous hits to their opponents. I see this series going to the limit as both teams are evenly matched. Prediction: Toronto wins in 7 games
Anything can happen in the playoffs, but I think the Habs should be favorite in most of their first-round matchups thanks to their great depth at forward and a steady goaltender in Carey Price. The Canadiens should come out of the first series practically unscathed and be ready for a much tougher second-round matchup against a better opponent. This is where the lack of movement by general manager Marc Bergevin will hurt them the most as Alexei Emelin’s loss will be even more apparent as they go deeper into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Habs fans, who do you want to face in the first round?