Looking at the schedule last week I made a mental note to comment on the fact that the Habs had to gain a significant amount of points from 2 games against the Sabres and 1 against the Islanders in order to have a shot of hanging around with the Pittsburgh Penguins at the top of the Eastern Conference. It feels too early to be talking about playoff positioning – but in this strike-shortened season it is becoming apparent that winning the Eastern Conference would make a critical difference in terms of quality of competition in the playoffs. Because of the silly NHL playoff structure that forces the top 3 seeds to be divisional winners, regardless of points, Montreal could wind up facing far better competition with a 2nd or 4th place finish than if they finished in 6th for example.
Currently the Winnipeg Jets lead (ironically) the South East division with 34 points. They occupy 3rd place in the conference. Boston trails them in the standings, yet hold a 9 point lead. The difference that makes in terms of playoff matchups is actually very substantial. If the playoffs were to start today, Boston would play the 5th seed Ottawa Senators in the first round. Winnipeg would play the Toronto Maple Leafs. I pose the question to you: Who would you rather play in the first round – Ottawa or Toronto?
My answer is a definite Toronto. Ottawa is a team that has been so resilient during the season, and have given Montreal such difficulty that I would want no part in a series with them as a first round opponent. The irony in all of this is that its actually the 6th seed Toronto Maple Leafs who would benefit the most from first round matchups. Toronto would get the opportunity to face Winnipeg in the first round of the playoffs. As I mentioned earlier, Winnipeg has 34 points which ties them with Montreal’s first round opponent (were the playoffs to start tomorrow): The 7th seed New Jersey Devils.
I ask you again: Who would you rather face in the first round of the playoffs – the inexperienced Winnipeg Jets, or the previous year’s Cup finalists led by notorious Habs-beater Martin Brodeur – playing in what will probably be his final season in the NHL? There is simply no question that Montreal would be better off finishing in 6th place this season than doing anything but winning the entire Conference and gaining the first round matchup with the 8th seed Carolina Hurricanes.
That is why Montreal is in a suddenly critical stretch of games against weaker competition, where it is imperative that they accumulate points, and not slip further back from the red-hot Conference-leading Penguins. Gutting out a point against the Sabres was huge. Finding a way to solve the Islanders late int he game was very big. Tonight’s game once-again against the troubled Sabres will be important, as the competition gets stiffer next week as the Habs face Pittsburgh, Boston and the Rangers. Points will be more difficult to accumulate against those teams – and a loss in Pittsburgh could provide the separation in the standings that allow the Penguins to start to leave the pack behind.
Can you feel it? Its starting to get fun isn’t it? We’re getting to that point in the season where its time to ratchet up the intensity! Barring an historic collapse your Montreal Canadiens will be playing playoff games this season – and this year they might just have as good a shot as anyone. Gaining points in games like tonight’s matchup against teams outside of the playoffs will be extremely important from here on in.
Go Habs Go!!!