It’s come to this, with the Montreal Canadiens having the good fortune of a second-straight shot to vault to the top of the NHL standings.
In spite of the Habs’ decisive loss against the San Jose Sharks on Monday, the league-leading Nashville Predators were unable to cushion their two-point lead against the lowly New Jersey Devils Wednesday and now sit atop the leaderboard alongside Montreal’s opposition Wednesday night: the Anaheim Ducks (10 p.m. Eastern).
The Habs have 87 points, but two games in hand on both, who have 89. Montreal and Nashville have the same 35 regulation (and overtime) wins. Anaheim has 33. Nashville won’t be playing on Wednesday.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Nashville Predators
The missed opportunity is a feeling the Habs probably know all too well, after only recently regaining the Atlantic Division lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, with setback losses of their own against teams much lower than them in the standings like the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers.
However, the Predators are now losers of four straight and might be in the process of falling back down to Earth after a season of stellar goaltending from Pekka Rinne and the surprise resurgence of Mike Ribeiro, who has made the Arizona Coyotes look very bad as a result. Of course, that’s not too noteworthy, as most everyone has this season… except for the Habs… who have lost to them as well.
While there is always a chance that the Habs can mirror their Western Conference counterparts (they have for pretty much the entire season with good goaltending and opportunistic scoring, why stop now?), one has to believe the Habs have a better shot than Nashville at coming out on top.
The Habs already lead the East, the weaker of the two conferences. While the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings might have something to say about that down the stretch, there are nevertheless several reasons to believe the Habs will end up as the top seeds in the Atlantic division and conference.
Relative to Nashville, the Habs have the easier schedule, with 10 of their remaining 19 games coming against non-playoff teams (7 for Nashville). The Habs will meanwhile face only six desperate teams within five points of their respective conference’s final wild-card spot (again, 7 for Nashville).
Put simply, Montreal may not finish as the No. 1 team overall, but they should finish ahead of the Predators in the standings. The Habs will play the Predators on the road on Tuesday, March 24.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Anaheim Ducks
Regarding the more immediate future, Wednesday’s game will pit Jiri Sekac and Devante Smith-Pelly against their former teams, with Sekac holding the advantage with two points in four games, getting ice time on a line with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Smith-Pelly has zero points in three games as a Hab.
Of course, that is just one minor sub-plot in Montreal’s impressive season to date. The Ducks themselves have been no slouches, with a 14-point lead in the Pacific Division, which, at this point, is as safe as a bank vault. The only way that disappears is with explosives… and the trade deadline came and went without general manager Bob Murray blowing anything up, obviously.
Instead he traded for reinforcements to strengthen an already great team. Nevertheless, compared to Montreal, the Ducks’ remaining schedule is tougher. They play eight non-playoff teams. Five games meanwhile remain against teams facing elimination, giving them a slight edge over the Habs there.
Call it a wash if you must, with tonight’s game holding serious implications in regard to how this race finishes.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Themselves
At this point, the Habs obviously shouldn’t get ahead of themselves. Their focus, which they seemed to lack against San Jose among other things (namely offensive zone entries), should be on the Ducks tonight. Beyond that, winning the division should be the priority and then the East, but purely for preferential seeding.
Consider the league regular-season title a nice-to-have, something for the fans to look back on fondly years and decades from now, but only if the Habs end up winning the Stanley Cup. Needless to say, if they win the Presidents’ Trophy and then fall short the road to redemption will be paved with a bunch of what-ifs.
Of note, only eight of 28 Presidents’ Trophy-winners have won the Stanley Cup, with six losing in the first round. Those aren’t exactly good odds. That’s almost like loading a 14-bullet revolver with six bullets and then giving ‘er a spin. Survive and you win big. Don’t and, you, well, don’t.
Would you be itching to pull the trigger?
Fyi, the Boston Bruins won it last year and got eliminated in the second round by the Habs. Were the playoffs to start tomorrow, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Habs (following a victory), would draw the, um, Bruins in the first round. Is it possible they’ve been feigning mediocrity all year long just to set this up?
In any case, goaltender Carey Price is admittedly the key here. With three sets of back-to-back games left, the Habs will probably give him at least 16 of 19 remaining starts. With a 36-12-3 record, he has a 70.6% winning percentage. If that holds constant the rest of the way, figure he’s good for about 11 more wins… shattering the team-record 42 by Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante in the process.
Assuming, under those circumstances, back-up Dustin Tokarski wins zero of his three hypothetical starts left (a fair assumption, all things considered), that would put the Habs on track for a conservative estimate of 109 points this season.
That would be the lowest total for a Presidents’ Trophy-winner since the 2003-04 Red Wings, meaning Montreal would really only have a shot if they were to play Price the rest of the way. And risking a tired Hart Memorial Trophy candidate for the playoffs? Probably not the best idea.
It most definitely is a fine line between trying to earn a favorable first-round opponent and not shooting yourself in the foot by risking injury to your best players just in time to face them. It’s still somewhat reassuring to know whatever happens, they are almost 100% guaranteed a playoff spot.
From there, though, anything can happen… good or bad. The Habs have proven to be legitimate contenders up to now. The worst that can happen is for them to get in their own way of hockey’s ultimate prize.