It may still be unofficial, but the Montreal Canadiens have made the playoffs for all intents and purposes. According to Hockey-Reference.com, the Habs have a 99.8% chance of making the postseason, with all that is left to be decided? Their seed and first-round playoff opponent.
Here are the five likeliest, along with their chances of success against each:
5. Montreal Canadiens vs. Washington Capitals
The Capitals currently hold down the first wild-card spot, with a seven-point lead over the second. They are also one point behind the New York Rangers for third in the Metropolitan Division. Seeing as the Rangers hold three games in hand, it’s very likely that the Caps stay where they are.
As a result, Montreal could really only face the Capitals under a very specific set of circumstances: They win the Atlantic Division this season, but lose out on the first seed in the Eastern Conference to either the New York Islanders or Pittsburgh Penguins (or Rangers) in the Metropolitan.
The first and only time the Habs faced the Capitals in the playoffs was in 2010, coincidentally in the first round. That postseason, the eight-seeded Habs upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps in seven games.
The dynamic between the two would in theory be flipped on its head, with one constant: Goaltending carrying the Habs through to the second round yet again. It would just be Carey Price in nets instead of Jaroslav Halak this time around.
Season Series: 2-0 (one overtime win and one shootout victory; one game to go)
Likely First-Round Result: Canadiens in six games
4. Florida Panthers
As shocking as it may sound, the Florida Panthers still have a decent shot at making the playoffs. They are the only team in the East currently on the outside looking in that has a realistic chance, just three points back of the second wild-card spot.
(Almost) right on schedule, the Florida Panthers are five years in to general manager Dale Tallon’s reign. And, true to his reputation, having turned around the Chicago Blackhawks—albeit into Stanley Cup winners—Florida has become competitive, even if only as playoff contenders. It should be noted that the Panthers did make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996 as huge underdogs (cats).
Of course, then they made it as a fourth seed. The highest seed they’re likely to earn this year is eighth, and, one has to believe, they’d be more than satisfied getting that far, perhaps enough not to put up much of a fight if all the bounces don’t go their way from the get-go in a first-round playoff matchup against the Habs.
For the record, they’d be more than due, sitting 26th overall in terms of PDO with Montreal 2nd. Even then, though, it likely wouldn’t be enough.
Season Series: 1-0 (one shootout victory; four games to go)
Likely First-Round Result: Canadiens in five games
3. Detroit Red Wings
The lowest the Canadiens will realistically slide at this point is third in the division, but it is very much possible with the top three teams in the Atlantic being extremely close in the standings.
That would mean either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Detroit Red Wings would end up as division champions instead of Montreal, with the Habs facing the other one. In such an instance, if their opposition ends up being the Red Wings, the Habs could very well be in tough.
Detroit is a top-five (four, actually) team in terms of Corsi (shot attempts for) at even strength, meaning they drive play considerably well. Montreal on the other hand? Twenty-first overall.
That obviously wouldn’t be the only factor in deciding a first-round matchup between the two, but the Wings arguably have a well filled with an impressive combination of experience and youthful exuberance from which to draw.
In net, Jimmy Howard is far from a slouch relative to Montreal’s Price. He has a very decent .919 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average. While Price (.934; 1.98) would likely be up to the challenge of facing a constant barrage of shots, there comes a point when one’s luck has to run out. These Wings aren’t as mentally weak against the Habs as the Bruins are prone to being. They stick to their game plan, in other words. Montreal would likely be at a loss trying to keep up over seven games.
Season Series: 2-0 (one overtime win; two games to go, including Tuesday night)
Likely First-Round Result: Red Wings in six games with home-ice advantage; in seven without
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Even though the Red Wings are currently the third seed to Montreal’s first right now, they also have one game in hand on the Habs and four on the Lightning. As a result, consider them the favorites between them and Tampa to end up in first place at the expense of Montreal. That would mean the Habs would get the Lightning in a repeat of last year’s first-round whitewash.
These wouldn’t be the same Bolts, though. For starters, uh, starter Ben Bishop would presumably be healthy. Had he been ready to go last spring, he probably would have prolonged the series a game or two.
For another difference, Steven Stamkos isn’t technically the most lethal weapon available to the Lightning. Tyler Johnson is leading the team in scoring, with Stamkos one point behind and “only” holding the team goal-scoring lead with 30. The Lightning also have six different players in all with 40 or more points. Montreal has just one (Max Pacioretty). And, yes, the Red Wings are a top-four team in terms of possession at even strength, but the Lightning are a top-three one.
While the Lightning were also a superior possession team relative to Montreal heading into the playoffs last spring, the difference wasn’t as pronounced. Tampa also has four games’ worth of learnt lessons to look back on were the two sides to meet again. They actually have, twice so far this season, with Tampa having had its way with Montreal. That trend may very well continue.
Season Series: 0-2 (with one 7-1 loss; three games to go)
Likely First-Round Result: Lightning in six games (no matter who owns home-ice advantage)
1. Boston Bruins
If the playoffs were to start today, Montreal would face the Boston Bruins once again. Seeing as Montreal is very likely to win the Atlantic Division at this point and the Bruins probably even more so the second wild-card spot, consider this matchup very much a probability, the fifth time Montreal would play Boston since the 2004-05 lockout.
Each side owns two victories apiece, with the Habs obviously winning the last time around last spring, in a grueling second-round seven-game series. It seems like almost each time the two teams play one another, their roles are reversed with the Habs taking turns being the favorites and then the underdogs. This time around they would be the definite favorites, but it would still amount to the same physical matchup as always.
For sheer entertainment value, there’d be nothing like another Boston-Montreal classic. For a playoff run lasting longer than two rounds, fans had better hope the Habs draw the Panthers instead.
Season Series: 4-0 (all in regulation)
Likely First-Round Result: Canadiens in seven games
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.