It wasn’t that long ago that the Montreal Canadiens had a realistic shot at the Presidents’ Trophy. Technically they still do, but one has to believe the Habs are a lot closer to losing the Atlantic Division than clinching first overall these days. And would it be so bad if they did?
Montreal Canadiens vs. Boston Bruins?
The way things stand right now, the Atlantic-leading Canadiens, now second in the Eastern Conference, would face the Washington Capitals in the first round, but the eighth-place Boston Bruins are coming on strong, with a 7-1-2 record in their last 10 games.
At this point, the Florida Panthers making the playoffs is nothing but a pipe dream and the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference are pretty much set, with just the actual seeding to be decided. So, ideally, Montreal’s first-round opponents would be the Capitals… that is after throwing out all unrealistic non-playoff teams from the equation.
In all actuality, Montreal’s truly ideal opponents would be the Toronto Maple Leafs. But there’s just something about their season-long swoon that says that would be just a tad unlikely (starting with them being 23 points behind the Bruins for the last playoff spot with just 11 games left).
However, as alluded to earlier, even the Habs facing Washington is inherently unlikely with the New York Rangers as hot as they are, tied with the Habs for first in the conference with 95 points, but with three games in hand.
If the Habs are able to hold on in the Atlantic, they might very well face the Bruins for the second straight postseason, this time in the first round. And, while Montreal was a perfect 4-0 (all regulation wins) against Boston this regular season, the postseason is a different animal, an elephant if anything, due in part to the intimidation factor of four gruelling rounds.
There’s also the long memory thing, and it was just last spring that the Habs dashed Boston’s Stanley Cup hopes. What better way to pay the Habs back than to—at the very least—bruise them up over the course of a long first-round series and indirectly ruin their shot at a record 25th championship?
Montreal Canadiens: Still Atlantic Division Favorites?
There is little denying, despite Montreal’s mediocre (to be kind) 4-4-2 record over the last 10 games, the Canadiens are still in good shape, as far as their chances at finishing first in the division go.
Three main reasons still hold true as to why they will still win the Atlantic. Their current first-place status, two points ahead of the second-place Tampa Bay Lightning, is at the top of the list.
However, with Tampa essentially owning the Habs this year and one more game between them still to come (March 30), sure Montreal still has control of its own destiny, but in kind of the same way you might have 30 seconds to defuse a bomb, but without any training whatsoever to fall back on. If the Habs don’t turn around their inability to dictate the tempo of play, it’s only a matter of time before they fall to second place or worse.
Hart Memorial Trophy candidate Carey Price is still the wild card here, seeing as he’s been able to stand tall in spite of the Canadiens’ porous defense all season long. However, with just one win in his last four games, he might be running out of miracles, in which case, the question needs to be asked: Should the Habs let Tokarski play more, especially now that he’s snapped his four-game losing streak (in spectacular 41-save fashion against the Florida Panthers)?
Looking at the schedule, there is only one set of back-to-back games remaining. As such, consider Tokarski for all intents and purposes a lock for the game against the New Jersey Devils on April 3rd on the road as his last start of the season. It doesn’t have to be his next one, though. Maybe just maybe the time is right to give Price more rest.
Considering the third-place Detroit Red Wings likely await the Habs if they do, it might actually be beneficial in the long run. While they technically have matched up as well against the Red Wings (3-0 with one game left, on April 9) as they have the Bruins this season, look at it this way:
They have matched up against the Red Wings about as well they have the Bruins this season (same words, different order, and an exclamation point for good measure)! And the Red Wings are just 5-5 in their last 10, implying a better shot at success, especially with Detroit being known more for its finesse than physical game.
To Tank or Not to Tank?
It’s technically not tanking if you’re going to lose out on first anyway. And getting outshot 43-25 by the Panthers, scoring just three against a third-string goalie? It’s winning in name only.
By resting Price, the Habs may indirectly actually give themselves a better chance at the Cup come the playoffs. This isn’t to suggest they bench him altogether and that Tokarski becomes the team’s temporary No. 1, just that the Habs maybe give their backup three or four of the remaining 11 games.
Nor is this a suggestion that the Habs play badly on purpose and look to enter the playoffs on a low. No one wins in that scenario, literally. No, there’s still time for them to turn it all around and start peaking entering them… and that can still happen with Price playing less than in 90 percent of the games left, with the added bonus of him being more rested come the start of the first round.
For the record, the Habs play six of their last 11 games against non-playoff opponents. The Lightning have five left (also 11 total). The Red Wings, who are eight points back with three games in hand, have six. So, it’s still very much Montreal’s division to lose.
In fact, entering action Wednesday night, the Habs were in a four-way tie for first place in the league, so nothing is lost, not yet. However, earning home ice throughout the playoffs is pointless if you’re not around to enjoy it in June. In fact, Montreal only lost last spring the one round they had it, in the Eastern Conference Final.
Taking it one game at a time is for the playoffs. Right now, it’s maybe about time the Habs start looking as far ahead as possible, in order to maybe make it further this year.
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.