Spoiler alert: The Montreal Canadiens aren’t making the playoffs, no matter how well they play down the stretch. However, that’s not really the point anymore.
Canadiens Hire Martin St. Louis
After the Canadiens started the season 8-30-7 under ex-head coach Dominique Ducharme, just showing up is all that matters, especially ahead of the March 21 trade deadline. “After” is obviously of interest too, but at least in the lead-up to the deadline general manager Kent Hughes (and executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton) can take action on insights as to who should stay and who not so much. That was one of the reasons for the Martin St. Louis hiring, after all. To get more of an in-depth assessment of who belongs.
Regardless, the Canadiens have somewhat surprisingly won seven of their last eight games under St. Louis. So, expectations may have to be readjusted as to how well the Canadiens will do down the stretch. However, that’s also in small part due to the level of competition (or lack thereof) the Habs will be facing, with a fairly easy schedule that would leave any bubble team green-eyed with envy.
Consider the following: The Canadiens have 26 games left. While 15 are on the road and 11 are at home, they are ending a five-game homestand on Wednesday against the Vancouver Canucks (3-1 so far). So, back up just four games and the season’s last 30 games were split 50-50 down the middle.
On top of that, 13 of the 26 games are against non-playoff teams. Of those opponents, only the Canucks have a realistic chance at catching up, four points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference entering Tuesday night’s NHL action. So, essentially, after Wednesday, the Canadiens are done with opportunities to play spoiler. That’s all she’ll have wrote.
To be fair, the Canadiens’ schedule isn’t entirely a walk in the park. The flipside is they obviously face 13 playoff teams as well, but, as you might assume, if they’re not facing all that many non-playoff bubble teams, they won’t be facing many playoff teams in danger of missing the postseason either. That’s just the nature of the race, especially in the Eastern Conference, with 10 points separating the second-wild-card Washington Capitals from the ninth-place Columbus Blue Jackets.
Really, only the Dallas Stars (March 17) and Minnesota Wild (April 15) qualify as exceptions. And literally 20 of the Habs’ remaining games are against Eastern teams instead. So, for the most part, the playoff teams they’ll be facing are just jockeying for position.
Even then, the top two teams in the Atlantic (Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning) are unlikely to face one another in the first round based the strength of their respective seasons so far. They’re the true heavyweights in the division to the point the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs and first-wild-card Boston Bruins are unlikely to catch up… and might actually prefer facing the Metropolitan-leading Carolina Hurricanes instead.
To put that crazy thought in perspective, the Canes are actually first in the Eastern Conference and similarly first in their division by a relatively wide margin. The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins are meanwhile neck and neck for second and third place. The Capitals are eight points behind those two teams, so, for all intents and purposes, the top three Metro teams are set, and, realistically, only Seeds 2 and 3 are subject to change. It’s that kind of season.
Canadiens Face Leafs, Bruins Two More Times Each
If you’re the Leafs or the Bruins, sure a Habs game means something. When has it not? So, you’ll try to win and everything, but you’re still probably not going to get too broken up about losing. Especially when the Leafs play the Habs on March 26, one night before facing the Panthers, and the Bruins play the Habs on April 24, one night after facing the Rangers.
Ultimately, there’s at least a good chance they each go with their No. 2s in those specific games. So, probably Linus Ullmark for the Bruins (Jeremy Swayman) and… God knows who for the Leafs these days (with each team playing the Habs one more time the rest of the way for two times total).
It’s not an argument that either the Bruins or Leafs will fail to show up altogether against the Habs, just that their motivation for doing so would theoretically be different than that of teams fighting for their playoff lives. There likely won’t be that same sense of desperation. Instead, the Bruins and Leafs will be primarily playing for pride those games, against their longtime rivals in the Canadiens.
Ditto for the Habs. And, as the last few weeks have proven, they’ve still got a lot left in the tank in that regard. So, the point referred to at the very top of this piece? Don’t count the Canadiens out of any of their remaining games.
High Draft Pick Still in Play for Canadiens
The Canadiens are still in little danger of losing a high draft pick, to be clear. Even during their current heater, they’ve only managed to climb out of last place in the NHL and are just one point ahead of the Arizona Coyotes, who have one game in hand. It just goes to show a) how hard it is to gain ground in the standings and b) how those standings aren’t everything, in terms of how well a team is playing.
Maybe that’s an implication that works both ways in that the Canadiens themselves can’t afford to take anything for granted in terms of their supposedly easy schedule. However, based on what the Canadiens have displayed under St. Louis, the only thing really preventing them from putting forth a solid effort is the degree to which the team gets dismantled by Hughes over the next few weeks. Even then, there will be jobs to be earned for next season.
All that to say, there is a bigger picture to look at here. In the grand scheme of things, this season doesn’t matter. Many fans are understandably looking past it, but, for the players, there’s still a lot for which to leave it all on the ice, like keeping this specific team from becoming the worst in Habs history. They’re no longer in the danger zone in that regard, but, rest assured, no wants a part of that dubious distinction. So, spoilers or not, the Canadiens are going to be tough opponents the rest of this season. They’ve already proven as much with St. Louis behind the bench.
There’s still a lot more to prove, though.
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 also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.